Answer: Both coed and single gender schools can be great schools. Communities should have free choice.
In a new era of school choice developing in local communities and new priorities at the federal level, it is important to understand the science of boys’ and girls’ learning. In my thirty years in this field, I have consistently argued that we should no longer pit one kind of schooling against another. Coed and single gender schools can both be great schools. However, when I gave that exact answer in a media interview recently, the response came: “That’s a copout—pick one!”
This zero-sum request inspired three sub-questions I hope you will ponder as you look at best choices for your district’s children.
1. Some single gender schools have gotten great results so why not say single gender is just better?
Many coed schools get great results, too, but one of the reasons single gender schools often show quicker success results is the requirement in many single gender schools that faculty and staff be trained (and practice fidelity to) male/female learning difference theory and strategies. Because science-based professional development is inculcated in these schools, the teachers more quickly inculcate learning, discipline, and social-emotional development strategies that work for boys and/or girls.
Without that training, either a coed or single gender school can make major systemic mistakes in learning and discipline, and thus lose both male and female learners. Quite often, coed schools are slower than single gender schools to provide this gender-friendly training and science-based systemic analysis. They are not focused on gender-and-the-brain, so they try other kinds of PD or other curricula. Their slowness to look at male/female brain difference results in old methods of teaching that work less well than we want them to for the brains of boys and girls.
To see success data for both coed and single gender schools the Gurian Institute has worked with, please click http://www.gurianinstitute.com/single-gender-schools.html. That data illustrates both points: that coed and single gender schools can both flourish with the gender lens training, and that single gender schools often show quicker results than single gender because of their deliberate use of science-based training and innovation.
2. Are there specific populations that single gender schools and classrooms might be best suited for?
It is very possible for a single gender school or classroom to help certain populations in ways that a coed classroom may not (and vice versa). Here are examples regarding single gender classrooms.
1) Many shy and introverted girls, who often do not show the kind of leadership we would hope for them in coed classrooms, can shine better in single gender classrooms. This can be especially true in math/science classrooms at the middle school age, when there might be two or three very assertive, verbal, and math- or -science-smart boys who dominate the coed classroom. It can also be true in any large coed classroom in which boy behavior confuses the teacher and creates classroom management issues. In the single gender classroom, introverted girls will often talk more, answer questions more, and lead more. Teachers who are teaching girls-only classrooms become very good at bringing leadership qualities out of all these girls.
2) Many boys who are raised without fathers and without enough masculine maturation influence do not fully develop social-emotional and learning skills; these boys may, however, flourish in single gender classrooms because in these classrooms they may get a focus on the male mentoring they need from adults and peer mentors. Because teachers and administrators in boys’ schools are generally trained in and often specialize in how to build character, social-emotional maturity, peer mentoring groups, and learning success for boys, these boys can often make up for loss of maturation influence at home by finding it in the school.
Because single gender classes/schools can be beneficial to many girls and boys, I hope they will be increasingly available and optional for American schools. I believe, too, that if we insist on "better than coed” or “worse than coed,” the "vs" language will create ongoing backlash that is not good for our schools, teachers, or students. Most classrooms in America are and will always be coeducational. Rather than pretending they are inferior (or superior), I hope each community will support all communities in obtaining the success that comes from seeing educational reform through the gender lens.
3. But won’t single gender classrooms lead to dangerous segregation and gender stereotypes?
This is indeed the most discussed "disadvantage" of single gender schools I hear wherever I travel or do media. This objection generally divides into these parts:
*"If we separate boys and girls, not only will we increase gender stereotypes, but we will do children a disservice because adult, family, and work environments in their future will be coed.”
*”Separation of the genders is segregation (discriminatory); this didn’t work for the races so it should not be practiced with the genders.”
As to the first “disadvantage’:
*Both coed and single gender classrooms can teach gender stereotypes. These stereotypes are part of our social fabric and so we battle them on all fronts.
*Meanwhile, some of the most successful people in the world went to single gender schools, including recent Presidential runner-up, Hilary Clinton.
*There is no evidence that spending a few years in a single gender school somehow makes a person a bad spouse or bad worker or bad leader.
Interestingly, some researchers have found just the opposite. Researcher Patti Crane and her team in the late 1990s interviewed spouses of men who had gone to coed schools and spouses of men who had gone to boys’ schools (please see more on this in A FINE YOUNG MAN). The researchers wanted to see if there were differences in social emotional skills of the males. Surprising Crane and her colleagues, the spouses of the men from boys’ schools reported better aggregate communication and emotional interaction skills in their husbands than did the spouses of the men who had gone to coed schools.
Crane, who had assumed the “gender stereotypes” argument, came to realize that many of the boys in boys’ schools who do not have girls around to “do the emotional work for them learn to do that emotional work for themselves.” By the time they become adults, they become, in many cases, very good spouses indeed. Crane’s findings turned the “dangerous gender stereotypes” and “male segregation makes for bad husbands” arguments on their heels.
*Segregation language is false language for the single gender schools debate. The reason: single gender schools utilize brain science whereas racial segregation in the 1990s was based in no discernible science. As David C. Page, M.D., professor of biology at MIT, recently noted: "If we compare a female and a male, genetic differences are 15 times greater than the genetic differences for two males or two females.” The genetic, neural, and biochemical differences between males and females are profound while brain differences between a black, Asian, or white male or black, Asian, or white female are not. Various aspects of culture can be somewhat different between races but race is nothing like gender to the brain.
Comparing single gender schools to racist schools mixes social principles in dangerous and merely ideological ways. Single gender learning is a science-based option that shows a school district’s understanding of how important the gender lens can be for learners and for people in everyday life. As you look at making the best decision in your communities—whether you choose between coed, single gender, Montessori, Waldorf, International School, or any other modality—I hope you will stay away from non-scientific ideologies. On www.michaelgurian.com you can click the About page and find “Research Reference List.” There, you will find more than one thousand science-based studies illustrating male/female brain difference. Even a brief perusal of those studies will, I hope, illustrate how robust is the need to innovate educationally for both genders, wherever the two genders fall on the gender spectrum.
While no one can truly say whether single gender or coed is better for every child—nor should we—we can say that now, after decades of brain science research, the great equalizer is teacher, staff, and parent training in male/female brain difference. If we pay attention to learning through a gender lens, each structural approach to learning can flourish.
By Katey McPherson