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Single-Sex Schooling and the Language of Difference

by Rosemary Salomone - November 20, 2006

The persistent focus on hard-wired differences that has captured the media is not only untested in its purported implications; it also is potentially harmful to students.

The federal Department of Education recently published revised Title IX regulations easing the way for single-sex public schools and classes. The announcement provoked a flurry of media attention. Not surprisingly, press reports have largely presented the key viewpoints in bi-polar mode with suggestive political undertones. On one side stand civil liberties and organized women’s groups. For them, separating students on the basis of sex, like racial separation, is inherently unequal and inevitably results in fewer resources for females; it violates the federal Constitution and Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal monies. On the other side stand the equally strident forces who endorse the notion of “hard-wired” sex differences. For them, findings from brain research demonstrate innate differences between females and males which affect learning and therefore justify separate schooling. One of the most insidious, yet ignored, aspect of this contentious dispute is the overused language of difference and its potentially harmful implications.

Ten years ago, the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem opened its doors, setting in motion a national debate on the legal and educational merits of allocating public funds for separating students on the basis of sex. Meanwhile, the school has demonstrated a phenomenal success, consistently sending each graduating class of poor and working class girls on to college. Close to 50 schools with a similar mission—to turn at-risk students into academic achievers—have since opened around the country. The Eagle Academy for boys in New York is just one example.

Over the past decade, watching these initiatives slowly take hold, I have thought and re-thought the issue in light of my own experience as a student many years ago. Like many Catholics growing up in the 1960s in cities like New York, I lived in an orbit of all-girls and all-boys high schools run by religious orders. Most of these schools were academically rigorous. There was a competitive admissions process and a pecking order among them. Implicit in the system was the belief that teenagers could best focus on academics if freed from the distraction of the other sex. The high school I chose to attend—or more accurately, the one that chose me—was among the most academically challenging of the all-girls schools. Once admitted, you had to maintain the pace lest you be “invited” to leave. The old New York State Regents exams provided the filter for the annual screening process.

The understanding was that every girl was either on her way to college or to nursing school. No typing or home economics classes darkened those doors. We were encouraged to compete, with each other and with ourselves—for the varsity basketball team, for the cheerleading squad, for the drama club, for the modern dance club, for the national honor societies, for awards in national competitions, for graduation medals. Yet we were each valued for our individual talents. We were quietly expected to perform toe-to-toe with the boys at our equally competitive Jesuit brother school. Meeting those same boys at after-school dances, football games, and other social events, however, we left our swords behind. Our academic and social lives were compartmentalized. We lived in a pre-Title IX world with post-Title IX hopes and sensibilities. And if the school did not prepare us for the “real” world, as critics now argue, it was because the real world was not yet ready for us.

The sisters, dressed in medieval garb, were our first role models of feisty intelligent and cultured women. They reveled in the intellectual life and pushed us, likewise, by their example. On the cusp of the modern-day women’s movement, they were just a touch ahead of the times. This was before Americans learned that schools (overwhelmingly coeducational) were shortchanging girls or that girls were losing their “voice” as they approached adolescence. Our voices were heard loud and clear and we knew just what we wanted to say. It was before psychologists told us that girls preferred to work collaboratively and boys competitively. We did both with equal ease.

We were not the norm for schooling in this country, but neither were we unique. There were similar, although few, public schools like Hunter College High School, Boston’s Girls’ Latin, and the Philadelphia High School for Girls, as well as numerous private independent schools that provided girls with similar opportunities. That is not to deny that, pre-Title IX, there also were many gendered vocational schools tracking girls into lower paying careers like hairdressing and stenography, as compared to the aviation and automotive repair programs offered to boys. Nor does it deny that in some cases all-boys schools received considerably more resources than their female counterparts. That indeed was the gloomy, and not to be forgotten, side of single-sex schooling.

Much has changed since then. In the 1970s, single-sex programs came into disfavor with the women’s movement and the notion of equality as sameness. Among public schools, they fell victim to federal enforcement under Title IX regulations published in 1975. Thirty years down the road, many now think of the approach as outmoded and perhaps based on archaic stereotypes of what girls and boys are all about—their talents, their preferences. Yet if we connect the dots between the earlier wave of academically rigorous schools and new initiatives, we see the approach in another light. For many inner-city students and parents today, as for others in the past, these programs represent a pro-academic choice where maximizing the potential of the whole student is the top priority.   

Unfortunately, over the past several years, as single-sex schools and classes within coed schools have gained renewed interest, the forces of brain differences have diverted attention from the true task at hand. These proponents have offered school administrators a deceptively simple and appealing rationale that masks more complex justifications in need of further exploration. At the same time, they have understandably raised deep concerns and fears among many women’s advocates, including those who support the concept. Yes it is true that, as compared to most girls, many young boys have high energy levels that can impede their learning if not constructively channeled. It also is true that many girls enter school with more advanced verbal and fine-motor skills useful for reading and writing, just as many boys have more advanced visual-spatial skills that facilitate math learning. Yet we also know that three decades of intense programming for girls has significantly narrowed the math achievement gap favoring boys. We also know that many girls and boys fall outside the “norm” and that some of the perceived achievement differences are as much a function of race and social class as gender. Moreover, the direct relationship between brain differences of indeterminate size and cognitive ability, learning, or teaching methods remains inconclusive. Psychologists sharply disagree on this point. Some make no causative claims; others speak with certitude. Without further empirical proof, it could be that some of these differences themselves are infinitesimal and thus inconsequential.

Some of these arguments mistakenly assume that children live in a cultural vacuum. Whatever small differences that psychologists have long recognized between boys and girls at birth are undeniably subject to social reinforcement—in the home, in school, and through the media. Most importantly, if overstated, they can suggest differences where they simply do not exist, thus disserving the very students they are designed to help.

Which brings me back to the language of difference. The persistent focus on hard-wired differences that has captured the media is not only untested in its purported implications; it also is potentially harmful to students. Press reports of proponents urging parents and school officials to separate girls and boys based on differing acuity in their senses of hearing, sight, and smell—which they claim present “problems” that single-sex programs can resolve—have raised the hackles of women’s groups as well as reasonable educators, policy makers, psychologists, and the general public. Such talk sounds trivial and even “off-the-grid.” It discredits more plausible cognitive and affective justifications for these programs. Some students, for example, simply feel more comfortable taking intellectual risks, especially in non-traditional subjects like math or science for girls and foreign languages or literature for boys, in the absence of the other sex. More importantly, it conveys to students the message that they have innate limitations that have to be overcome. Different computes as deficient. Nor should we forget that socialization is a significant part of schooling. In the end, we live in a “coed” world, as the critics of single-sex programs remind us, and young people must learn to respect each other as individuals and equals. Yet by repeatedly, explicitly, and publicly hammering away at in-born sex differences, educators risk creating in students a view of the opposite sex as “the other,” a mindset that can damage their relationships now and in the future.    

In the old days, single-sex schooling never needed to justify itself; now it does, for legal and policy reasons, and rightly so. As we learned from the past, whenever we draw sex distinctions, there is always the danger of making overbroad generalizations. That being said, we now have an even deeper understanding of child and adolescent development and the emotional pressures that weigh on girls and boys in different ways at different stages. We also have emerging from existing programs a growing body of largely anecdotal evidence on improved student performance and adjustment. That is not to suggest that we abandon coeducation as the norm. Certainly single-sex programs are not for all, or even most, students. But when thoughtfully implemented, their explicit academic focus, increased same-sex role models, and specific sensitivities to girls or boys seem to work especially well in the totalistic environment of separate schools and especially for at-risk students struggling to construct a positive sense of gender that identifies with academic success. A critical, yet overlooked, part of implementation is how educators present the approach—whether in separate classes or schools, to parents, and especially to students.

Language matters. So does the imagery it evokes. Until the connections to learning and teaching are certain, if ever, proponents must set aside “talk” of “hard wiredness.” In doing so, they may ease some anxieties and perhaps even the virulent opposition, thereby generating less heat and more light on how best to help individual students navigate gender especially through the turbulent waters of adolescence, while taking into account whatever observable learning differences may or may not appear in any group. Above all, they will avoid the divisive and personally damaging messages such talk inevitably conveys to students.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 20, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12845, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:12:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Rosemary Salomone
    St. John’s University School of Law
    E-mail Author
    ROSEMARY SALOMONE is the Kenneth Wang professor of Law at St. John’s University School of Law and the author of Same, Different, Equal: Rethinking Single-Sex Schooling (Yale University Press, 2003).
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