While public schools have long been coeducational, families that consider private schools are almost certain to encounter single-gender options, and it is important to weigh the pros and cons.
Single-gender schools have a long history in the U.S. In fact, until the 1960s and 70s, it was common for boys and girls to be separated for at least some of their classes. Today, most K-12 classrooms are coeducational and, though there are some single-gender public schools, most are private. Public or private, there are arguments both for and against single-gender education, and the research on the subject is mixed. Opponents say it limits vital social interaction while proponents say it is an opportunity to customize the educational experience, increase confidence and strengthen community involvement.
“I personally can’t think of any bad things that come from empowering girls and allowing them to really be confident in their leadership skills,” says Carrie Wagner, CEO of GALS Inc. and the founder and executive director of Girls Athletic Leadership School Los Angeles, known as GALS LA.
Single-Gender Education for Girls
According to research collected by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, graduates of all-girls schools are more likely than those attending coeducational schools to impact their communities; perform better academically; consider majoring in math, science or technology; and have higher aspirations and greater motivation.
However other research, including a 2014 meta-analysis by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Whitman College, has found little evidence of benefits. Pscyhology professor Janet Hyde, one of the authors of the analysis, explained in an interview that many studies on the benefits of single-gender education fail to account for other factors that might influence success.
“Especially in the United States, parents who choose single-sex schooling, on average, have more money and more education, which all predict performance,” she said. “So if you find that the students are performing better, you don’t know if it’s due to the single sex education or the fact that they started out with these advantages.”
Vanessa Garza, founding principal at GALS LA, argues that a single-gender learning environment benefits girls by increasing confidence which, in turn, builds leadership capabilities.
“If you look around the room, who’s going to be the student body president?” she says. “It’s going to be a female. Who’s going to lead an after-school club? It’s going to be a female.”
While there can be competition, girls can also be very supportive in a single-gender setting, Wagner says.
“What you find at our school, and what I found when I was going to my own all-girls high school in Ohio, is that the girls are just super supportive of one another,” she says.
Single-Gender Education for Boys
Some education experts say that single-gender schools can help reduce behavioral issues for boys because the educational environment provides a more comfortable classroom experience.
“In single-gender schools, boys are often more willing to take risks because they don’t feel the fear of failing in front of the other sex,” says Matt Albert, executive director of the Center for Reflective Communities in Los Angeles, which works to enhance the relationship between children and parents or caregivers. “Single-gender schools can establish more relaxed environments [and] less gender stereotyping, and courses can be tailored to student needs and interests.”
Single-gender schools can also allow boys to learn and grow at their own pace, gaining confidence in their abilities without being compared to girls, who often develop some skills more quickly, Albert says.
Education experts say that one downside of single-gender education can be the lack of interaction. At some point in their lives, both boys and girls will have to learn to coexist with each other.
“Being only used to people of the same gender might pose a problem once the need to interact with the opposite sex sets in,” Albert says.
But Rachel Connell, the rector of Chatham Hall, an all-girls day and boarding school serving grades 9-12 in Virginia, says much can be done to help students gain social skills.
“With a vast array of co-curricular and extracurricular activities, any school can offer its students a broad spectrum of opportunities and interactions,” she says.
Choosing a Single-Gender School
Education experts say the best thing that parents can do when considering a single-gender school is to evaluate whether or not the environment serves their child’s particular needs.
“Parents should shut out all the other noise around parenting and schools and simply focus on what feels right for their own child,” Albert says.
That can depend on age. “Exposure to all types of diversity, including gender diversity, is critical for the development of young children,” Albert says. For older kids, he recommends that parents look first at the arguments the school makes for single-gender education. If those arguments match parental values, they can evaluate whether the school lives out its mission.
“Take a look at who the graduates are,” Albert says. “What kind of people are they? What distinguishes the school from other single-gender schools and other coed schools?”
In high school, experts say children are old enough to participate in the school decision-making process — and they should. “Parents and adolescents can have real conversations about the decision,” Albert says.
In the end, it comes down to finding the right fit. When families visit a prospective school, Connell says, it’s important that “they leave with not just a good impression but that intangible ‘good feeling’ as well.”
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