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Should I send my child to a single-sex school?

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By Psyche Pascual

What to look out for in a quality single-sex school

Single-sex schools have the same goals that most schools share: to give students the skills and knowledge base they need to go on to college and to have meaningful careers. Many single-sex schools incorporate some aspect of character-building — teaching respect or emotional intelligence — into their curriculum. For boys, this may mean focusing on nonviolent ways to communicate and exploring how to be a good friend. For girls, it may mean teaching leadership and public speaking skills.

Many single-sex schools find ways to incorporate fine arts or dramatic performances as part of their academic offerings, and some have won national and international attention for their efforts. (Look out for Grammys on the hallway walls.)

These schools can often attract teachers committed to single-sex education who bring advanced degrees and college-level instruction to the school. Deans and directors at many single-sex schools are former college instructors and administrators.

What supporters say

  • Less competition between sexes: Single-sex supporters argue that competing with boys can prevent girls from learning the communication and leadership skills they need to succeed. Single-sex education gives girls the opportunity to pursue their interest in nontraditional fields such as science and math. Boys also learn to interact with their peers without being overwhelmed by girls, who often have more highly developed communication skills. Some studies have found that girls score higher on tests when they’re in a single-sex classroom, although these findings have been disputed (see below). Educators point to some research indicating that girls who attend single sex schools do better on standardized tests than those at co-ed schools. Single-sex advocates argue that this is because teachers tend to pay attention to louder, more aggressive boys, and call on girls less often as a result.
  • Rewriting gender roles and defying sexism: Gender stereotypes are part of our culture; advocates say that single-sex schools actively work to reverse these stereotypes in their curriculum and afterschool activities.
  • Adapted to differences in how girls and boys are wired: Supporters point to research showing that language skills for boys develop more slowly than for girls, giving girls an edge early in life. Single-sex education gives boys a chance to learn at their own pace.
  • Fewer distractions from academic work: Some students, especially teens, spend a good part of the school day flirting or fighting or thinking about members of the opposite sex. In fact, some single-sex schools were established to help kids from low-income urban neighborhoods where violence, high dropout rates, and teen pregnancy were rampant. Demanding curricula in single-sex schools, these supporters say, turns the focus back to education.
  • High college acceptance rates: Many of the schools emphasize college-track academics for students, including Advanced Placement courses and intermediate college courses. One Chicago public charter school for boys, Urban Prep Academies, boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate, for example.

What critics say

  • The benefits are suspect. Although supporters tout the science, some of the largest studies of single-sex schools aren’t clear about the benefits of being in an all girls or boys classroom. Some critics argue that single-sex schools attract students whose families are more involved in their education and push them academically, and this explains the positive academic outcomes demonstrated in some studies of single-sex schools. Milder critics say that while there may be benefits for girls, single-sex education is bad for boys.

    Many single-sex critics also cite major problems with studies proporting to show the benefits of single-sex education. In fact, one of the largest reviews of single-sex school studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found these studies inconclusive when it comes to the benefits of single-sex education. Even the National Association for Single Sex Public Education admits that many of the single-sex classrooms across the country share co-ed activities with the rest of the school, so differences in outcomes are hard to verify.
  • Single-sex public education is unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes public single-sex schools and classrooms on constitutional grounds. The ACLU is concerned that the revisions to Title IX allowing single-sex education in public schools will lead to separate but unequal education. (Read more about the ACLU's position.)
  • There's faulty scientific research. Some researchers question the science that purports to show that girls learn differently than boys, and that there are major differences in the wiring of girls’ and boys' brains. According to these scientists, differences in learning outcomes for girls and boys are the result, in large part, of nurture, not nature. In an article in the journal, Science, scientists argued that single-sex education actually reinforces gender stereotypes that are harmful to both girls and boys: "There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism," the authors conclude.
  • Students who attend single-sex schools can’t relate to the other sex. One large study from the Institute of Education in London concluded that boys who attended an all-boys school were more likely to be divorced by the time they are 40. Another study contends that interaction between girls and boys leads to healthier relationships as they grow mature.

A final word of advice

Find out if the single-sex school you're considering is accredited by a regional or national organization. Still, accreditation is not always a surefire stamp of approval. Some excellent schools lack accreditation by a regional group. But membership in a national or regional organization can give a school single-sex educational resources that it might not have on its own, such as opportunities for collaborative teaching and international studies. Some schools belong to the National Coalition of Girls' Schools or the International Boys' Schools Coalition. But if they don’t, don’t be surprised. Some are so new they don’t yet have a track record.

Many single-sex schools don’t go beyond the eighth grade, an age when many children hit puberty and their curiosity in the opposite sex is heightened. If your child is no longer interested in a single-sex education, it may be a good time to transition to a co-ed high school.

Finally, visit any school you are considering for your child. Get input from other parents, teachers, and the principal. Ask questions that will give you as complete a sense of the school as possible. Make sure you feel that this is the right school for your unique child.