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How Context Mediates Policy: The Implementation of Single Gender Public Schooling in California

by Amanda Datnow, Lea Hubbard & Gilberto Q. Conchas - 2001

In this article, we present findings about the implementation of single gender public schooling in California--a movement that signifies a growing interest in school choice and private sector solutions to public education problems. We analyze qualitative data gathered in a study of 12 single gender academies (6 boys; 6 girls). As well-meaning educators responded to California’s single gender academies legislation, they designed schools and used resources to address the pressing needs of students in each community, such as low achievement, poverty, or violence, rather than to address gender bias. The impetus for single gender schooling in each context affected the organization, curriculum, and pedagogy in each academy, as did educators’ ideologies about gender. In the end, the politics surrounding the legislation, the resource interests of district and school administrators, and the lack of institutional support for this gender-based reform coalesced to structure the demise of most of the single gender academies. We consider the implications of these findings for the viability of single gender schooling as a public school option.

In this article, we present findings about the implementation of single gender public schooling in California—a movement that signifies a growing interest in school choice and private sector solutions to public education problems. We analyze qualitative data gathered in a study of 12 single gender academies (6 boys; 6 girls). As well-meaning educators responded to California's single gender academies legislation, they designed schools and used resources to address the pressing needs of students in each community, such as low achievement, poverty, or violence, rather than to address gender bias. The impetus for single gender schooling in each context affected the organization, curriculum, and pedagogy in each academy, as did educators' ideologies about gender. In the end, the politics surrounding the legislation, the resource interests of district and school administrators, and the lack of institutional support for this gender-based reform coalesced to structure the demise of most of the single gender academies. We consider the implications of these findings for the viability of single gender schooling as a public school option.


Today, perhaps more aggressively than ever before, public schools are under attack for presumably failing to deliver academic rigor and for contributing to the decline of society's moral values. In response to these concerns, many policy makers have pushed for the expansion of school choice within the public school system. Most recently, the choice movement has embraced single gender schooling—a model that received impetus from the private sector—as one possible solution to the problems of public education. In 1997, amidst a climate of dissatisfaction with public education, California's (now former) Governor Pete Wilson took a prodigious step and drafted legislation providing funding for the establishment of single gender academies.

In order to determine the status and future of this educational reform, it is essential to examine the social, political, and economic contexts in which these schools were established and to analyze how actions at the state, district, and school levels, in interaction, have shaped single gender public schooling. To capture the interrelations among these various contexts, we analyze the implementation of single gender public schooling as a co-constructed process, "as a web of interrelated conditions and consequences, where the consequences of actions in one context may become the conditions for the next" (Hall and McGinty, 1997, p. 461). That is, interactions in one policy context (for example, the state legislature) generate "outcomes" which in turn potentially condition the interactions of other actors (for example, district administrators, teachers) in other contexts in the policy chain (Datnow, Hubbard, and Mehan, 1998). Yet, while actions initiated at some distance away from local events may indeed constrain or shape actions, they do not totally determine them.

Examining how educators actually implement the single gender schooling legislation is important, as research suggests that it is in the process of responding to laws* that organizations construct the meanings of those laws and mediate their impact on society and public institutions (Edelman, 1992; Mehan, Hertweck, and Meihls, 1985). Policymakers' and educators' ideologies—their beliefs and values about education, teaching, schooling, and life in general—influence their actions (Fullan, 1991; Talbert and McLaughlin, 1993) and sometimes operate in the service of existing societal norms and social structures (Apple, 1985). In our study, we illuminate how policy makers' and educators' beliefs and goals influenced the design and enactment of single gender public schools. We discuss actions that were taken at each level of the system (for example, state, district, school) in order to show their interplay in the implementation of the single gender academies legislation in California.


The current push for single gender public schools is interesting given that the findings on their effects are conflicting (AAUW, 1998). Moreover, most of the research thus far on single gender schools has been conducted in the private and parochial sectors, not in public schools (Mael, 1998). As a result, selection bias has figured strongly into research results. Research that has been conducted in the public sector has mostly occurred in countries outside the United States, where single gender schools are more common than they have been here in the last 30 years.

Some studies suggest that single gender schools benefit both males and females, because they provide a stronger academic climate and reduce distractions (Finn, 1980; Jimenez and Lockheed, 1989; Lee and Bryk, 1986). Benefits in terms of self-esteem, leadership, or engagement in math and science for girls attending single sex schools have been affirmed by various studies (Cairns, 1990; Lee and Bryk, 1986; Moore, Piper, and Schaeffer, 1993; Petruzzella, 1995; Streitmatter, 1999). Other research points out that single gender schools are particularly beneficial for boys because they promote male bonding and optimize male character development (Hawley, 1993; Reisman, 1991), and that males from low income and minority backgrounds especially profit from single gender schools (Ascher, 1992; Hales, 1998; Hudley, 1995; Riordan, 1994).

While, the aforementioned studies find in favor of single gender schools, other researchers have questioned the academic advantages offered by single gender schooling (Rowe, 1988; Willis and Kenway, 1986). Some argue that single gender educational settings promote stereotypical attitudes towards the opposite sex (AAUW, 1998; Brutsaert and Bracke, 1994; Foon, 1988; Phillips, 1979) and are generally less happy places (Dale, 1974). The conflicting evidence regarding the benefits of single gender schools has led some researchers to suggest that school factors (for example, climate, school size) contribute more to positive outcomes than school type (Lee, 1997).

While single gender schools still exist primarily in the private and parochial sectors in the United States (Tyack and Hansot, 1990), numerous public schools have experimented with single gender classes or programs (Streitmatter, 1999). Concomitantly, there has been considerable political and legal debate regarding their value. Feminist organizations have voiced concern that single gender schools are a setback in the struggle against "separate but equal" public education. The American Association for University Women (AAUW) and the National Organization of Women (NOW) argue that single gender schools are not the answer to gender equity. Rather, they advocate for changing practices in coed public schools to make them more equitable for girls and boys. Single gender schools have also been attacked on legal grounds, and schools and programs in several states have been forced to become coed or disband on the grounds that they were in violation of Tide IX of the U.S. Constitution (Levit, 1999).

Overall, more research is needed to clarify how single gender education operates in the public sector, particularly in the current sociopolitical context that is characterized by increased pressure for school reform, a lack of adequate funding for schools, and tensions between self-interest and the common good. In this article, we begin to shed light on these issues by analyzing the implementation of single gender academies in California's public school system.


From 1998 to 2000, we have been engaged in a three-year longitudinal study of California's single gender academies. Our study relies primarily on qualitative, case study research methods. We chose case study methods for our study because they enable us to examine the processes and consequences of single gender schooling in the real life contexts in which they occur. It allows us to present the perspectives of those actually implementing the single gender schooling legislation (Yin, 1989).

Three members of our research team visited each of the single gender academies in California four to five times, for two days each visit. Using semi-structured protocols, we interviewed teachers, principals and/or academy directors, parents, students, and district officials. We interviewed almost all of the teachers in the single gender academies, and the majority of students enrolled during the 1997-1998 and 1998-1999 school years. We asked about the origin of the academies and why educators and students chose to participate. We inquired about the professional background of teachers and noted their plans for staff development, teacher collaboration, and curriculum development. We also asked teachers, principals, and academy directors about their perceptions of the benefits and weaknesses of the single gender academies.

In our visits to schools, we observed academic and elective classes. When there was the opportunity, we also observed in co-educational classes, as some single gender academies were schools-within-a-school. We focused on student-teacher interactions, student-student interactions, and pedagogical strategies. We also interviewed officials at the California Department of Education and the governor's office in order to gather information regarding the single gender schooling legislation and the process that led to its development. All interviews were taped and transcribed verbatim.

For the purposes of this article, we draw upon qualitative data collected in over 200 interviews and observations that were conducted in the first two years of our study. In addition to coding data to identify emergent themes, we wrote case reports on each set of academies that facilitated cross-site comparisons. In the subsequent sections, we bring qualitative data into conversation with the aforementioned theoretical framework for understanding educational policy implementation as a co-constructed process. We begin with a discussion of events at the state level that spurred the single gender schooling experiment in California.


In 1997, California's Governor Wilson drafted legislation that resulted in the opening of 12 single gender public academies (6 boys, 6 girls) in 6 districts. In Wilson's 1996 "State of the State Address," he argued that single gender academies were a way to provide public school students more options, more choice, and better preparation for real world opportunities (California Department of Education, 1997). Later, in a speech at one of the single gender academies, Wilson stated: "Kids need options... and single gender academies will stimulate competition and give kids opportunities they currently do not have because they are trapped in their schools, and they need another approach."

When single gender schooling was proposed, the political climate in California was ripe for the expansion of school choice. In the past few years, California voters passed anti-immigrant and anti-affirmative action legislation. At the same time, the number of charter schools in California has continued to grow, staving off calls for voucher programs. Each of these movements signified a belief that the solution to solving the ills of public schools was to gear schooling towards the needs and wants of particular groups. Therefore, the single gender schooling experiment, as designed as an optional program, fit well within the mood of the state.

According to sources at the state level, Wilson initially presented a plan for all male academies as magnet schools for at-risk boys and all-female schools focused on math and science. It appears that ideologies about gender, race, and the definition of public schooling influenced his vision for these new schools. His initial plan for the single gender academies raised concerns among legal advisors and feminists alike. Wilson's attorneys pointed out that attending to perceived gender differences could violate constitutional law, specifically Tide IX. Feminist groups who had long fought for integration and equality saw the separation of the genders as a move toward inequality.

In the end, Wilson's attorneys drafted single gender academies legislation with the "primary goal" of "increas(ing) the diversity of California's public educational offering." The legislation stated that while single gender academics would "tailor to the differing needs and learning styles of boys as a group and girls as a group," "... if a particular program or curriculum is available to one gender, it shall also be available to those pupils in the other gender who would benefit from the particular program or curriculum" (California Education Code, Section 58520-58524). In other words, there must be "equal opportunities at both boys' and girls' academies."

The legislation instructed the California Superintendent of Public Instruction to award grants on a competitive basis to "10 applicant school districts for the establishment of one single gender academy for girls and one single gender academy for boys, in each of those selected school districts" at the middle- or high-school levels under the pilot program (California Education Code, Section 58520-58524). The legislation stated that a district that opens a school for one gender must open a second school for the other. Moreover, both schools must provide equivalent funding, facilities, staff, books, equipment, curricula, and extracurricular activities, including sports. Finally, while a single gender school may be located on the campus of another school, it must be a complete school, not just a single gender class or program. These legal guidelines reflected an effort to stem Title IX challenges.

The push for equal opportunity was most apparent in the allocation of funds. California's law allowed the school districts to receive $500,000 to operate single gender academies at the middle- or high-school levels. However, the grant was to be divided equally between a district's boys' and girls' academies. The funding was intended as a development grant to schools; they would be able to use the money as they wished, but the expectation was that after two years they would fully fund themselves through average daily attendance (ADA) money. The single gender academies were to operate essentially as magnet schools pursuant to the California Education Code. The legislation gave the responsibility of over-sight of the single gender academies to the State Department of Education. However, no extra funding was provided for the administration of these new schools, nor was funding provided for a state evaluation. Schools were required to conduct their own evaluations or use part of their funding to contract with an outside group.

Initially, 24 districts expressed interest in proposing single gender public schools. Disappointingly, according to one State Department of Education official, there were only eight school districts that submitted proposals for funding. In part, this was due to the very short timeline; districts had only two months to prepare applications. Also, some districts were concerned about the legalities of single gender public schooling, despite assurances from attorneys that the legislation met the standards of Title IX. Of the eight that submitted proposals, one district's proposal was rejected because its design was not appropriate, and a second district pulled out of the review process because of legal concerns. In the end, only six districts in California were funded to start single gender academies.

The funded districts were located across the state of California in a variety of. urban, suburban, and rural contexts. The academies served student populations that are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic, and linguistic background. Four of the districts operated a total of eight paired single gender academies at the middle-school level, and two operated a total of four paired single gender academies at the high-school level. Table 1 includes a description of each district's single gender academies. For the purposes of confidentiality, pseudonyms are used in this article for all place and person names.



The state provided the opportunity or "conditions" for district educators to take the necessary actions to establish single gender academies. The state also delineated the requirements to which the schools must adhere. However, it was the extant needs of the districts that created the motivation for seeking the grant, and subsequently for the organizational structure that ensued. Many administrators sought the $500,000 because of the resources and opportunities that it would provide for students who were not successful in their school systems. In other words, instead of seeing the single gender academies as primarily an opportunity to address gender inequities (as one might predict), most educators saw the grant as a way to help address the more typical educational and social problems of low achieving students. In several cases, these were low-income students, primarily those of color. To be sure, all of the educators sought to decrease distractions among boys and girls and many sought to improve students' self-esteem. However, none of the proposals showed evidence that the single gender academies were designed to also address gender bias.

With the grant funding, educators could develop social and academic support structures to address the needs of their particular student populations, such as low achievement, truancy, poverty, violence, or geographic isolation. For example, the educators at Evergreen, located in an isolated rural area of the state, wanted to broaden students' experiences and opportunities. Many of the students came from families who were on public assistance because the economically productive lumber industry in the area had virtually disappeared. Most of the students had never been outside of California; few had been to a large city. This lack of experience, according to local educators, "affect[s] the prior knowledge students have at their disposal to facilitate new learning." With the money from the grant, Evergreen's teachers were able to purchase vans to transport students to San Francisco and Sacramento and other places of cultural and historic interest. The grant also provided for reduced teacher-pupil ratios, computers, and much needed lab equipment.

Educators' purposefulness in applying for the monetary grant was evident from their comments. The principal of the single gender academies in the Palm District said, "Why do I go for the single gender? What's so great? It's a great opportunity. It's also money. I can do something. If you have a traditional school . . . you've got to get extra money." With the grant she was able to purchase the technology for Web TV, which provided students with access to on-line curriculum at home. She compared this funding opportunity to the operating budget of another alternative school in the area: "They are on a bare bones budget. They buy nothing. They've got nothing going on over there." According to the principal, they can only manage to buy paper and pencils and even then, they are "still in the red."

In the Birch District a district administrator strongly emphasized that "single gender was just another big grant, it's a lot of money." A school administrator in charge of the academies explained: "My main interest? Honestly, the gender part of it wasn't huge. I didn't really think about gender bias and all those sorts of things." Instead, the academies were seen as a way to improve the achievement of low-income and minority students. Reflecting upon the single gender experiment one year after its inception, a district administrator did not mention the benefits incurred by the students, but rather the school system: "We got a lot of real estate out of it. Last year we got. . . two portables. A hundred and fifty thousand. . . . We own them forever. We got hardware [computers]. We got all kinds of stuff. You know, you have to look at it a little broader."

The above examples point to the power of money in motivating district or school administrators to start single gender schooling in their communities. The single gender funding was a chance to provide new opportunities for students. Even in places where school funding was perhaps not as scarce, such as Cactus, educators found that they could use the single gender academies funding to lower class size (not just in the single gender academies, but effectively across the whole school) and purchase technology not formerly available to them. In sum, the funding allowed schools to provide a new educational option with increased academic supports and resources.

Two other districts, Pine and Oak, also saw the grant funding as a way to address the needs of boys and girls in their communities. However, these districts differed notably from the others in that they had prior experience with single gender education, and thus the grant was not the initial motivator for single gender schooling. Pine operated a school for at-risk boys for two years prior to the grant funding becoming available. The school-opened as a result of the superintendent's concern for boys of color in the community, whom she saw as lacking male role models and subject to involvement in violent crimes at a young age. The school was initially established as a safe haven for at-risk, very low-income boys where they would be provided with "tough love," structure, mentoring from adult males, and basic skills.

The single gender academies funding allowed the school to expand, now opening to girls as well as boys, and enhance the services it offered to the students and their families who had many unresolved academic, health, and social needs. The director of the single gender academies in the Pine District explained: "We were able to really create a school with small class size . . . with extra personnel and then give office space to other social and health care professionals in a cost-effective way." The students aptly recognized the close attention they received from adults. One student said, "we can't get away with anything." The students reported feeling "special" and "cared about." They felt they received the help and attention they needed, which they did not get in their previous schools.

Notably, a middle school in the Oak District had piloted two single gender classes for 60 boys and girls in the two years prior to the grant becoming available. The impetus for these initial classes was concern about the low self-esteem of adolescent girls documented in How Schools Shortchange Girls (AAUW, 1992) and Reviving Ophelia (Pipher, 1994). A teacher explained, "the whole idea behind [the initial experiment], particularly for the girls, was to give them enough strength emotionally, socially, and intellectually so that they can hold their own ... in mixed classes." However, instead of serving a randomly selected, heterogeneous group as in the past, the grant-funded single gender academies would aim to serve underachieving students with small class sizes, two full-time counselors, and additional classroom resources.

Here again, even at Oak, the single gender academies grant became a vehicle for educating low-achieving students, shifting from their original vision of improving gender equity. In fact, their grant proposal did not mention gender bias at all. Receiving the single gender academies grant also allowed for the preservation of three teacher positions in an era of declining enrollment, and all teachers benefited from class size reduction. By reducing the size of the classes, students reported an improvement in their ability to focus on their schoolwork and to get the academic assistance they needed from teachers. The grant also provided for additional resources. The principal explained: "This is an opportunity in a lot of ways, and when the grant ends, the stuff stays here." As was the case in the other districts, the state funding was a vehicle to provide single gender education to needy students, as well as meet unrelated organizational needs.

In sum, the conditions set by the state—the political climate, legislation, allocation of funding, and request for proposals—provided the impetus for the establishment of single gender academies in four districts and the expansion of them in two others. However, the policy of single gender education in California was mediated at the school level when implemented by local educators in each community. Well-intentioned educators, many of them responding to economic and social realities in their schools and communities, found ways to use single gender as a vehicle for meeting these other pressing needs through this new school choice option.


Despite the common goals of increasing school choice, serving underachieving students, and reducing distractions between boys and girls, each district chose to spend the funding in different ways to meet the needs of their particular population of students and their local circumstances. Indeed, the legislation did state that the academies needed to be designed with the "unique educational needs" of their students in mind, pushing some to focus on specific populations. As a result, the students the academies attracted and the curricular plans, organizational arrangements, and special services differed from site to site. Common among them, however, was a wealth of resources not typically available in public schools.

Both the Palm and Pine Districts operate self-contained single gender academies to serve students with a history of truancy, violence, and poor academic performance; boys were of particular concern. Both sites departed somewhat from the traditional structures of schooling. The principal of Palm designed a very specific school structure to respond to her grade 7-12 students, who were referred to the school by the juvenile justice system. There is a zero-tolerance discipline policy and students pass through a metal detector as they enter the school, which is located in an office park. The school's approach to teaching students is through cross-curricular thematic units that focus almost entirely on hands-on, computer-assisted, self-paced learning in a mixed grade setting. The school's technology focus has been a major for draw for students, whose other option would be to enroll in a much less resource-rich coeducational alternative school. As one young woman remarked, "it makes people want to learn here . . . 'cause they teach us in an interesting way."

Also self-contained, the academies in Pine offer a traditional* age-graded, subject-centered curriculum, but provide mentoring and comprehensive health and social service agency representatives on-site. In keeping with the principal's philosophy, which is "programs don't change kids, relationships do," there are many more adults employed at Pine than in the average school. Boys who have had discipline or severe academic problems are referred to the school by educators at other sites, because the school provides social and academic supports that other schools do not. However, because of the school's image as a place for these boys, the girls' academy has had difficulty attracting students. As a result, the administration has attempted to improve the academic, reputation of the school in order to have broader appeal in the community.

The other four districts in our study operated single gender academies as schools-within-a-school. The school-within-a-school model provided a rather different climate and structure to the two self-contained sites, and tended to be organized much more similarly to the whole school in which they were located, departing less from traditional arrangements. In most cases, students attended single gender classes all day with the same group of boys or girls, but spent lunch time in the coeducational setting of the larger school. In these respects, unless one entered the particular single gender classrooms, one would presume that the schools were entirely coeducational.

The single gender academies in the rural Evergreen District were located on the campus of an existing K-8 school. Largely because of the special resources that were provided (that is, field trips, computers), two-thirds of the entire middle school population opted to attend the single gender academies, which meant that only one coeducational class was left at the school. Given its rural location, the school had difficulty attracting and retaining teachers and administrators, which meant that the veteran teachers for the academies were also the administrators. There was little systemic support for the academies. This left the teachers with little time to plan and organize new curricula, nor time to collaborate as they had intended. As a result, they taught traditional subject classes and incorporated career awareness and self-esteem curricula only marginally. They did, however, take students on field trips, as described earlier.

While the Evergreen academies were open to all students (as the entire population was defined as at-risk), the single gender academies in the Birch District aimed to be an option for "incoming ninth grade student populations that have shown a high potential to attend college but have achieved only poor grades in middle school." Because the single gender academies began mid-year and were among many special programs offered at this large comprehensive high school, administrators had difficulty recruiting students. In the end, they took all willing participants, regardless of whether or not they fit the profile; the boys tended to be very low achieving, whereas the girls were average. Students were offered a traditional, college preparatory curriculum, remaining in self-contained classes all day while different teachers moved from room to room. The administration also had difficulty recruiting teachers for the academy positions. As a result, three of the five teachers were Teach for America interns in their first year in the classroom, without teaching credentials. In sum, organizational constraints strongly played into the implementation of the single gender academies at this site.

Like those in Birch, the academies in the Oak District were established to address youth who were not performing up to their potential. In the first year, a disproportionate number of low-achieving African American boys were referred to the program by teachers who wanted them out of their coed classes; however, some high achieving Muslim girls also elected to enroll for religious reasons. However, in the second year, the academies became quite heterogeneous. Like Birch, this school experienced teacher and student recruitment difficulties, due to the state funding being received too late to allow for proper advance planning. The teachers taught an English/social studies and math/science core curriculum that was similar to that in the regular middle school.

The academies at Cactus were located on the campus of a K-8 school in an affluent suburban community. The needs of low-achieving, behavior problem students (boys, some with gang affiliations) who had transferred to the school initially propelled the principal to apply for the grant. However, in the end, the proposal was written such that die academies could attract a wide range of students (anyone not performing above the 90th percentile), aiming towards expanding educational options for students. And, while the single gender academies did attract some of the "troublesome" boys, they were very popular among high achieving girls whose parents were interested in this new choice for their daughters. In fact, there was a waiting list for the girls' academy in the second year. Thematic, project-based, multi-age curricula were offered in both the boys' and the girls' academies, and this was the same curriculum that was offered in the coeducational middle school program. However, as we describe in the next section, pedagogical changes were subsequently made in the two academies to respond to educators' perceptions of differing needs of these boys and girls.

Clearly, how educators organized the academies to address student needs is key to understanding the implementation of these single gender public schools, particularly as some were oriented to serve primarily low-income, low-achieving students of color. Still, no two single gender academies were identical, as educators interpreted the single gender schooling legislation to suit their local constraints, needs, and interests. The organizational arrangements and focus of each school also influenced who chose to attend. So, too, educators' ideologies about gender and their responses to students' gender-specific needs shaped the curriculum and pedagogy in each of the schools. In the next section, we show how policy is mediated at the local level as educators managed the practical realities of schooling boys and girls in single gender classrooms.


The single gender schooling legislation in California states that the single gender academies should "tailor to the differing needs and learning styles of boys as a group and girls as a group," as well as provide "equal opportunity in both boys' and girls' academies" (California Education Code, Section 58520-58524). These dual and ambiguous goals set up a tension for educators, who grappled with how to meet students' gender-specific needs while still offering them the same educational experiences. Not surprisingly, teachers' ideologies about gender influenced how they structured learning for students.

All of the educators we spoke with were very concerned about spending resources equally and offering the same curriculum to boys and girls. As the superintendent in one district explained: "We wanted to be Tide IX clean, on track. I mean, if somebody got a number 2 pencil, the other academy got the same one. There was not going to be a difference." Similarly, teachers in another district explained that the same literature, social studies, and science lesson plans were used in both the boys' and girls' academies. A social studies teacher confirmed that she taught the lessons "exactly the same" to each group. Since everything that is taught to one gender must be taught to the other, some educators attempted to make the curriculum "gender neutral." In practice, this sometimes meant that the curriculum was oriented toward the males, as teachers were very concerned about maintaining order in the all-boys classes. In one instance, a principal explained, "we are going to do video conferencing in Denmark this month, and both the boys and girls will learn how to design a car."

On the other hand, some teachers organized their lessons to consciously address gender bias and to promote the advancement of women. This was particularly apparent at Oak, where some teachers saw the single gender academies as an opportunity to raise awareness about gender equity in society and taught both the boys and the girls with this goal in mind. For example, one teacher explained: "We did an exercise of going through these old science books and looking at pictures and saying, 'What do you see with the boys and the girls? And what roles are they playing?'" Another teacher explained that he talked with his male students about off-color language being a form of sexual harassment or sexism. Not surprisingly, these examples were evident at a school where educators had implemented single gender classes for the purposes of increasing gender equity prior to the state funding becoming available.

We did find a handful of teachers elsewhere who made personal (rather than schoolwide) decisions to address gender bias in their classes. They tended to be women teachers who were enlightened to issues of sexism in society, typically through their own education or life experiences, and who chose to address such issues in their classes with girls. For the most part, these same discussions did not happen with boys.

In a few instances, teachers offered the same curriculum in the boys' and girls' academies, but offered students choices that allowed for their gender-specific interests. This was how they dealt with tailoring to the unique needs of boys and girls, while still attempting to provide equal opportunities. This occurred most often in English or social studies, and virtually not at all in math and science. For example, at one school, students were given the opportunity to choose novels (from a list of acceptable books) in the English literature classes. In the girls' academy, the students chose to read Pride and Prejudice. In the boys' academy, the students chose to read All Quiet on the Western Front. The teacher explained: "The girls tend to choose the romantic spiel ... and the guys tend to go for the action."

Educators also attempted to attend to perceived gender-based interests through elective classes. However, at one site, elective class offerings appeared to be driven by teachers' gendered identities and personal interests as well as by the students' demands. Teachers planned electives that were tied into a social studies unit on the Westward Expansion. Girls were taught quilting and sewing by middle-aged women teachers, while boys took an elective class on survival from a young male teacher. This class involved watching the movie "Alive." It appears that when teachers geared the curriculum to respond to students' interests, they perhaps unintentionally reinforced traditional gender roles.

Educators also organized instruction to attend to what they perceived as gender-specific needs of students. One of the obvious markers of this was the assignment of male teachers to male students and female teachers to female students that occupied in two districts. More commonly, educators attended to perceived gender-based needs of students by adjusting their instructional methods accordingly. For example, at one site, the girls were often given opportunities to work in collaborative groups, whereas boys were taught in a more traditional fashion. Comparing the boys' and the girls' academies, the principal explained that in the girls' academy, "We have cooperative learning, we have rubrics, we have tables. . . . My question now is, in doing that, have we short-changed the boys?" He went on to explain: "The all-boys schools that I'm aware of have very traditional education . . . tables, [desks in] rows, and so we're looking at that. We've gone to grades. I don't know that we'll go to desks, but. ..."

Similarly, at another site, the director of the single gender academies said that while the curriculum was the same for the boys and the girls, the instructional methods needed to be gender-specific. He stated:

[T]he girls do much better cooperatively. . . . And they can spend a lot more time on [an activity] and they won't lose much interest. And the boys, if they throw a little bit of competition in there they'll get it done. And I know those are stereotypes that we hear about how girls and boys learn differently, but they seem to be true.

At one school, the staff found it necessary to use different management approaches with the boys and the girls, as students of each gender presented their own set of needs. The vice-principal explained that "you can't treat both genders the same." With the boys, he felt that you could come to a quick understanding through an authoritarian style of discipline, but "girls are totally different." He said he had to "learn to communicate with the girls" by not yelling at them, but rather by showing respect.

In sum, educators typically made sense of the ambiguous goals of the single gender schooling legislation by offering the same curriculum in both academies, but by employing different instructional techniques and electives to respond to what they perceived to be gender-specific needs. While reflecting responses to the students' needs, the actions of educators also reflect their own ideologies about gender. Educators' decisions were influenced by their enlightened perspectives about gender equity or, conversely, gender stereotypes. No doubt, teachers' ideologies arise from experiences in a society that socializes individuals to learn appropriate gender roles early on (Thorne, 1993; Weitzman, 1975), and one in which, both in society-at-large and in schools, men occupy positions of higher status and women face constraints due to their gender (Acker, 1996; Biklen, 1995; Datnow, 1998; Hubbard and Datnow, 2000). As in coeducational school environments, teachers' ideologies about gender influenced their actions in single gender settings (Streitmatter, 1999).

Overall, we noticed a lack of deep inquiry about gender equity among educators, and an absence of opportunity for discussion about what it meant to be teaching boys and girls in single gender classrooms. Even though almost all of the districts had planned staff development sessions to raise gender awareness (as part of their academy proposals), seldom did this occur. Faced with little guidance and the ambiguity of the legislation, educators simply did what they felt was best to respond to what they saw as students' gender-specific needs. In this regard, we see evidence of how teachers' ideologies about gender and the interactions between teachers and students in the classroom mediated the implementation of single gender public schooling in California.


As time went on, the politics surrounding the legislation, the resource interests of district and school administrators, and the lack of support for a gender-based reform coalesced to structure the demise of most of the single gender academies. Through a series of political actions at the state level, the single gender academies did not receive additional funding that they were expecting the third year. Wilson had allocated $2 million in the state budget to support existing sites and $3 million to support the start-up of six new pairs of academies. However, during a legislative hearing that was held to consider these allocations, a senator who was philosophically opposed to single gender schools staged a campaign against them, bringing in a representative from the AAUW to testify about its research on single gender schools. The voices of the senator and the AAUW were predictably more powerful than those Palm and Cactus school administrators, who testified in favor of them. Subsequently, the single gender academies funding was quietly stripped from the budget. This coincided with Wilson's replacement in January 1999 by Governor Gray Davis, who introduced his new plan for reforming the state's public education system.

These political events at the state level led to politics at the local level and, to some degree, there was an interaction of the two. All sites remained in operation during the 1998-1999 school year. Administrators in all of the schools were angry and disappointed about the political process and the fact that more funding would not be coming their way. Some wrote letters to senators and lobbied in their communities. As one district administrator stated: "We tried hitting up the governors' office, and everybody was just doing mea culpas right and left. . . ." One principal said that what he learned was that "politics is just a joke. It has nothing to do with what's good for kids in education."

When future state funding was uncertain, most academies lost status locally, reinforcing the fact that financial interests motivated their opening initially, rather than a real commitment to single gender education. Immediately, two districts replaced the white male administrators formerly in charge of the academies with African American women. Both of these women lacked the clout of the former administrators and encountered barriers due to their gender and/or race. For example, one teacher remarked about the new administrator at her site: "There was a little bit of a problem because of her gender. This school does not like strong women, and that's a problem for her." The single gender academies had little chance of surviving since these school administrators did not command the same power as their predecessors and, without state funding, there was a lack of interest among district leaders.

Although the assumption of the legislation was that the schools would fund themselves through average daily attendance money after the first two years, the reality was that several districts used the lack of state funding as a reason to close the academies. One disappointed teacher remarked, "It seems like this program was a hot political ticket and no one wants it now." The threat of closure was very stressful for teachers, who had expended significant time and energy on the academies and who feared losing their jobs, and for students, who were unsure where they would enroll the following year. Some teachers, parents, and students who had strongly supported the academies felt ignored when they tried to voice their concerns about the closures. Some students wrote letters to local politicians complaining about the closure, but did not get any response.

The opinions of students, parents, and teachers held little weight against those of powerful administrators who made decisions, typically without any stakeholder participation at all. Most district administrators argued that there were no "hard data" to show gains in student achievement and moreover the AAUW (1998) Separated by Sex report did not offer support for single gender schools. Despite their supposed interest in "objective indicators" about the effectiveness of single gender education, most administrators admitted that if the academies were grant-funded, they would have continued.

Four pairs of single gender academies closed in the fall of 1999, and a fifth pair closed in the summer of 2000. Even Oak, which had single gender classes prior to the advent of the legislation, chose not to continue the academies. Quite simply, most administrators were not willing to put themselves on the line in front of school boards to advocate for single gender academies, particularly in the face of other competing priorities. Meanwhile, the self-contained single gender academies in Palm remain open as of 2000. These academies continue in large part because powerful women administrators have chosen to support them with ADA money and other grant funds. In Pine, the single gender academies are the superintendent's "baby"; and, according to a state administrator, "she is the only superintendent in any of these districts who has the level of commitment needed. ..." It is perhaps no accident that these academies also serve very at-risk student populations. As such, they continue as places to educate difficult students whom others are reluctant to teach.

Clearly, the events that led to the closure of four districts' single gender academies were not simply financial. They also showed evidence of a lack of commitment to a reform focused on gender. An academy director connected the waning support for the single gender academies at her school site to the lack of interest in gender equity: "I really think that sort of sexism and gender inequity has been pushed way back in to the background. ... So, I think that mentality is part of the reason why there was very little support for the program. Because I don't really think the district, or the school site, really believes or [is] . . . reflected on gender inequity." Similarly, one teacher remarked, "Any acknowledgment of gender would be a step in the right direction, because I never hear it. I never hear it at all."

In sum, in the face of other competing demands in public education (for example, literacy, high stakes accountability), this gender-based reform was simply not a priority for new state policy makers and for district and school administrators. The support for gender-based school reforms has typically not been strong in the United States (see Stromquist, 1997) and is arguably likely to grow weaker in the future, as researchers point to closing achievement gaps between girls and boys (for example, Riordan, 1998).


Throughout this article, we have attempted to demonstrate that policy is co-constructed and does not flow in a unidimensional, unidirectional fashion from the statehouse to the school door. The actions and ideologies of individuals in each setting—the governor's office, the state department of education, the district, the school, and the classroom—all shaped the implementation of single gender schooling in California. The legislation did in fact provide some constraints within which educators needed to operate. However, it did not determine fully the organization of single gender schooling in each community. As well-meaning educators responded to the legislation, they designed schools and used resources to address the pressing issues of students in each community, such as low achievement, poverty, or violence, rather than to address gender bias. In most cases, single gender schooling was a vehicle for meeting these needs, not an end in itself. The eventual closure of the academies. in four of six districts reinforces the low priority of this gender-based reform, the politics surrounding the entire movement, and the resource-driven interests of district and school administrators.

An implication of this study is that educators with limited resources, faced with an opportunity to secure large state grants, will react in any way possible to meet the needs of their students. It is quite understandable that these educators adopted this utilitarian orientation toward the single gender school legislation. This orientation is necessitated by the overwhelming practical circumstances facing urban schools generally (that is, poverty, diversity, large size, mobility, instability of leadership), and those in California in particular, a state which ranks 49th out of 50 in per-capita funding for education. Clearly, "context matters when studying school level reforms" (Wells et al., 1995, p. 21).

Moreover, educators' social constructions of students and ideologies about gender impacted how single gender public schooling was implemented. As educators made sense of legislation that asked them to both respond to gender-specific needs and provide equal opportunity to boys and girls, their own ideologies about gender and their beliefs about students' needs came into play. In some cases, educators' practices appeared to lead toward increased gender equity. However, in other cases, their practices appeared to be rooted in gender stereotypes. These findings suggest that single gender schooling can both foster gender equity and promote stereotypical attitudes towards the opposite sex, in contrast to prior research that argues that single gender schools by their very nature lead to one or the other. In both coeducational and single-sex schools, gender equity must be an explicit goal of educators for it to be realized. Most importantly, the goal of gender equity must be accompanied by well-informed practice (Blackmore, 1998; Sanders, 1996).

The findings presented here also raise some important issues with regard to the meaning of single gender schooling in the public education landscape. While clearly offering a choice to students within the public sector—a choice that is typically reserved for students who can afford private schools—some of the single gender public schools in California were not always open to everyone. To be sure, in two districts, the single gender academies were accessible to any student who chose to attend, regardless of prior achievement levels. However, in four districts, who was eligible to attend became a matter that was largely decided by the district in the design of its academies (and perhaps by the legislation that asked districts to focus on the unique educational needs of students). Most of the California single gender schools became a mechanism by which to educate low-achieving, low-income, sometimes troubled youth in a resource-rich environment. In this regard, the single gender academies risk becoming a new form of tracking or segregation for these students, who were often encouraged by educators to apply, rather than self-selecting into the single gender academies.

If carefully constructed, single gender schooling could become a more viable choice option, but our findings show that it is not necessarily a panacea for the problems of gender equity in public education. While the California legislation calls for equal opportunity, it does not guarantee any particular outcomes with regard to equity. As Edelman's (1992) research on how organizations respond to civil rights law suggests, laws that include vague or ambiguous language give organizations wide latitude to construct compliance that responds both to environmental demands and organizational interests. Here, we found that educators mediated the impact of single gender academies legislation as they constructed schools to fit with local constraints and needs. Gender bias was not of central concern, particularly at the institutional level. This is perhaps not surprising, as in California, single gender education was promoted under the umbrella of school choice, not as a way to address gender inequities.

In addition to suggesting the need for further research on single gender education in the public sector, the findings of this study suggest the need for future studies of how other educational policies are mediated when implemented in different contexts. We agree with Oakes et. al. (1999, p. 19) who argue that reform is not simply a process of setting policy, providing resources, and proceeding with implementation and monitoring: "Reform is much less logical and technically rational. It is much more idiosyncratic—dependent upon the context of local relationships, histories, and opportunities." There are undoubtedly numerous other poignant examples of how educators construct the meaning of educational reforms as they mold policies to fit local contextual demands and their own belief systems.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 22, 1999, in Montreal. We wish to thank Gary Natriello, an anonymous TCR reviewer, and Bud Mehan for their helpful comments on this paper. We also wish to thank the participants of our study, who gave very graciously of their time. The work reported herein was supported by grants from the Spencer Foundation and the Ford Foundation. However, any opinions expressed are the authors' own and do not represent the policies or positions of the funders.


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AMANDA DATNOW is an assistant professor in the Department of Theory and Policy Studies in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on school reform policies and politics, particularly as they relate to issues of equity and the professional lives of teachers. She is the author of "Power and Politics in the Adoption of School Reform Models" (Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Winter 2000).

LEA HUBBARD is an assistant research scientist in the Sociology Department at the University of California, San Diego. Her work focuses on educational inequities as they exist across ethnicity, class, and gender. She is the coauthor, with Amanda Datnow, of "A Gendered Look at Educational Reform" (Gender and Education, 2000).

GILBERTO Q, CONCHAS is an assistant professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His research emphasizes inequality and sociocultural processes within the school centext that structure variations in educational opportunity for urban minority youth. He is the author of "Structuring Failure and Success: Understanding the Variability in Latino School Engagement" (Harvard Educational Review, forthcoming).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 2, 2001, p. 184-206
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10723, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:43:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Amanda Datnow

    E-mail Author

  • Lea Hubbard
    University of California, San Diego
    LEA HUBBARD is an assistant research scientist in the Sociology Department at the University of California, San Diego. Her work focuses on educational inequities as they exist across ethnicity, class, and gender. She is the coauthor, with Amanda Datnow, of “A Gendered Look at Educational Reform” Gender and Education, 2001.
  • Gilberto Conchas
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    GILBERTO Q. CONCHAS is an assistant professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His research emphasizes inequality and sociocultural processes within the school centext that structure variations in educational opportunity for urban minority youth. He is the author of “Structuring Failure and Success: Understanding the Variability in Latino School Engagement” ( Harvard Educational Review, forthcoming.)
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