Single sex-school discussion

Bernice R. Sandler (
Fri, 24 Apr 1998 11:15:19 -0400

Putting the legal impediments aside, let us begin to set up our single
sex schools for girls and for boys, and begin to examine the
hornet's nest of policy issues we will face. Are we talking about
1) a totally single sex school system, with single sex education for
each gender and nocoeducational institutions? I think this in
not very likely.
2) a coeducational system with one or more single sex schools for girls
only, but none for boys, or
3) a three-tiered system, single sex education for boys, single sex
education for girls and some coeducational schools?

First, let us set up a coeducational system which sets up one or more
single sex schools for girls but none for boys. Almost
immediately we run into a dilemma: the more girls that attend single sex
schools, the smaller the number of girls in the
coeducational schools. It is hard enough for girls when they are in
roughly the same proportion as boys; these negative
dynamics between males and females are often exacerbated when girls
become a minority of students. Indeed the smaller the
proportion of females, the more likely they are to be viewed as
outsiders and to face hostility from some of their male
classmates. Pulling a number of girls out of coeducational schools and
putting them in a single sex environment may make it
difficult for the remaining girls who are now smaller in number.

When a school system sets up one or more female single sex schools, to
some degree, it is "admitting" that its coeducational
programs are not adequate for females. Will some of the girls in the
coeducational schools who were turned down for
admission to the single sex school claim that they are deliberately kept
in a coeducational school when the system has admitted
that this is not good for them. And will boys sue to have "equal"
single sex schools if there are only single sex schools for girls?
Will either girls or boys sue because the single sex schools and the
coeducational ones are not equal? For example, if there
are features in the single sex school, such as smaller classes which we
know enhance learning, will students in the coeducational
school claim that their school is not equal to the single sex one, and
that they too are entitled to smaller classes because the
smaller classes are only available to some people on the basis of their
gender. That is where we begin to run into serious policy
problems, defining how one school is equal or unequal to another.

Let us assume, however, that the school system is a tripartite one, with
some single sex schools for girls, some single sex
schools for boys, and some coeducational schools. How do we determine
the number of students and the number of schools
for each gender? What will we do, if, for example, if more girls than
boys, or the other way around, want to attend single sex
schools? If there are more female applicants than males and the number
of spaces for each gender is the same, will girls face
more stringent standards for admission than the boys? That could cause a
lawsuit, because boys would have greater
opportunities to go to a single sex school. Even if admission to the
more popular girls school was by lottery boys would still
have a greater chance of being admitted to their single sex school than
girls. If we increase the number of slots or schools
available to girls in response to greater desire on the part of females,
we are likely to have to allocate more resources to the
now larger single sex girls schools. For example, the larger girls
school might have a more varied athletic program; will boys
then complain that their facilities are inferior because they had less
resources on the basis of sex?

On what basis will we allocate specific resources and facilities to the
single sex schools, and the coeducational schools? At
what ages shall we start singe sex schooling? Kindergarten? First
grade? Middle school? High school? On what information
are we going to base these decisions? How will we determine which boys
and girls get to attend the single sex or coeducational
schools? Since the program is compensatory, will we admit girls who
have the least skills and interest in science and math or
will we admit the girls who are already interested and skilled so we can
further nourish them in the single sex environment?

Keep in mind that not all schools systems are huge like those in our big
cities, but that many school systems have only a few
high schools, elementary and middle schools. Thus our resources
available for single sex programs are often going to be
limited. For example, if there are two schools we are considering for
our single sex schools, one for our girls school and one
for our boys school, and one has better science and athletic
facilities, shall we allocate the one with the better science and
athletic facilities to girls because they need to be "encouraged" or
shall we allocate them to the boys because they are more
"interested." If girls are less interested in physics than boys, will
we allow a stronger physics program at the boys school?
Would that be considered equal? Of course, we could bus the interested
girls to the boys school, but one could make a case
that not having the strong physics program in the girls school has a
discouraging effect on the girls' interest in the courses.

The crux of the problem is that the single sex schools for girls and
boys would have to be "equal," not only to each other but to
the coeducational schools as well. And we would need a whole set of
extensive federal policies or regulations under Title IX,
and additional policies at the state and local levels, not to mention
continual court cases to validate or overturn those policies
and to determine exactly what equality is when the resources are not
identical: The key questions is: How will we measure

Those of you who have followed the determination of what constitutes
equity among predominantly black and white schools
know that this is not easy to do. Similarly, those of you who have
followed the determination of what constitutes equity in
athletic programs for males and females and the many court cases on this
issue under Title IX know how difficult and
controversial it is to determine equity. In athletics alone, the Title
IX regulation lists more than 60 factors to be evaluated.

Just for openers -- and apart from the number of students -- we would
have to look at size of classrooms, number of
classrooms, facilities and resources within the classrooms such as type
of seating (open or fixed), sinks, closets, access for
audio-visual equipment, etc; library resources; counseling access;
athletic facilities and opportunities; access to computers;
access for multimedia; number and variety of courses; quality and number
of faculty; faculty ratio, quality and number of
extracurricular programs; access and opportunities for disabled
students; location of school; security; music and art facilities and
resources; size of grounds and outdoor facilities; parking facilities
for high school drivers, etc.

Some of you may accurately point out that our schools vary along all of
these factors right now. That is true, but none of the
differences with the exception of athletics are related to the sex of
the students who attend these schools, and to be
constitutionally valid, assuming publicly -supported single sex schools
were constitutionally valid and did not violate Title IX, the
resources and facilities of the single sex schools and the coeducational
ones would have to be equal. You could not have
unequal programs.

And what will we do with vocational schools, or will we just have single
sex schools for the academically gifted, and
coeducational schools for the non-college bound students?

Most likely what we will do in our single sex schools for girls is to
give them more attention and encouragement, to have smaller
classes, and a more collaborative and participatory pedagogy _ all of
which we know are good for all students. Unless we do
something very different in all female schools that confer no benefits
for male students whatsoever-- and I can't think of what
that could be -- we are treading on very slippery ground. If it is good
for all students, why are we limiting it only to females?

The possibility of lawsuits contending that one sex or the other has
inferior schools is not a fantasy. Our courts, much as they
have had to do in the area of athletics, would face a series of
lawsuits in order to determine how equity is evaluated. It is now
25 years since the passage of Title IX and we are still having lawsuits
addressing the question of what constitutes equity in

Also remember that throughout the history of education, whenever we have
had any separate educational facilities for males
and females, females have had less resources. That is what we had in
New York City, for example, as well as in other systems
prior to the 1970's. In every one of these systems, the boys whether in
single sex schools or coeducational ones had more
resources, more athletic facilities and programs, more access to a wider
range of vocational planning and courses. Even when
there were single sex schools for males and females, the male schools
were typically larger, had bigger libraries, smaller faculty
ratios, more science opportunities and equipment, and so forth. "Ah,"
you say, "But those inequities would not occur today.
We have Title IX and more awareness." True, but I remain somewhat
skeptic. Let us examine education today. Where are
the greatest and most obvious inequities remaining today? It is in
athletics, the one place where there is substantial sex

Single sex schools for girls essentially are an individual strategy
which helps a small number of individuals rather than a systemic
attempt to help all students. Such single sex institutions can y good
for the few females who attend them, but they have virtually
no impact on the vast majority of girls and boys who remain in
coeducational schools.

The single sex school is based on the assumption that coeducation is bad
for girls, that somehow girls cannot learn as well in the
presence of boys. That assumption, unfortunately, is true, but only in
part. The locus of the problem is not in girls themselves
or in coeducation. The problem is not that girls do not learn well or
that their self-esteem is lower in coeducational schools.
The problem is not in the coeducational school itself but in the way in
which coeducational institutions currently exist. We do
not have truly coeducational institutions in virtually all of the
schools in the nation.

Our need for single sex education for girls is based on the myth of
coeducation, that girls and boys attending coeducational
schools have identical experiences and opportunities. Nothing could be
further f rom the truth. Males and females, sitting side
by side in the same classroom often have very different and far from
identical experiences. We have years of research showing
that teachers unwittingly treat males and females differently at all
levels of education, encouraging males more, giving them more
attention, more feedback, more praise, more criticism, more help, more
eye-contact and less interruptions, Females are not
called on as much as males and there are often self-fulfilling higher
expectations for male students. Even the best of teachers
will treat male and female students differently. (I myself recently
noticed that while I was conducting workshops on teaching
effectiveness and gender I looked at my watch only when women were
talking, giving men my full attention when they spoke.)

Additionally, the growing issue of student-to-student sexual harassment,
especially that of boys harassing girls, coupled with
teachers and principals who do not understand their responsibility to
intervene, makes coeducation as it exists in virtually all
schools at all levels, a very different experience for males and
females. Student to student harassment is an explosive and
growing issue that goes well beyond boys "simply teasing" girls. I am
talking about obscenities hurled at girls, and girls having
their genitals grabbed, even in first grade. There are schools where
girls will not wear anything with an elastic waist band
because boys pull down their clothing, often with their underwear as
well. If you have a child, or access to a child, don't ask if
they have ever done these things or had these things happen to them.
Instead, tell them that you hear that boys pester girls in
some schools, and ask "what do the boys do in your school?"

Our school are also not truly coeducational because the curriculum
generally includes little about women, their contributions
and their lives. And to that add the devaluation of females by society,
by teachers, by male students and by girls themselves.

The issue is not whether or not single sex schools are good for girls.
We know that they can be. We also know that what can
happen in girls schools such as more attention, nurturing, smaller
classes and the like can also benefit boys. The issue is
whether this is the best way to educate allof our children. We cannot
help only a few girls. We need to reform the system.
We have the tools now. We know what we need to do.

Where is a school of education in the United States that actually trains
its teachers in terms of gender fairness, and where
gender is an integral part of teacher education and not just a single
course, if that? Where are the in-school programs that
teach boys and girls to respect each other? Where are the school
systems that are training their administrators, their teachers
and their students about student-to-student sexual harassment? Where are
the programs in schools of education or in staff
development of teachers and principals that teach them how to intervene
when students mistreat each other on the basis of
sex? Where is the curriculum development in elementary and secondary
schools that incorporates knowledge about women
and their lives and gender in general throughout the entire curriculum?
Where are the schools that help boys and girls explore
what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, and to
explore the relationships between males and females?
Where is the State Board of Education that takes gender seriously? Where
is the foundation in New York or elsewhere that
will fund a whole school system so that it can create a system which
makes it possible for girls and women to flourish in a truly
coeducational setting? And if not a whole system, where is the
foundation that will give sufficient funding for just one school to
be a model of equitable coeducation where girls and women, boys and men
could truly flourish?

Part of the purpose of our schools is to teach the skills and knowledge
needed for the future. To do so our schools must act
as a counterbalance to the trends and societal stereotypes that hinder
and hurt the development of females and males alike, and
the relationships between males and females. Our schools must be a
place which consistently and deliberately sets out to
weaken the effects of stereotypes about men and women, girls and boys,
to which students have been exposed from very early
in life. It must help males and females examine these stereotypes,
behaviors, attitudes and other constraints that affects their
lives as males and females. Until and unless our school systems
throughout the entire country do this, discrimination and
educational inequity will persist at all levels, and no amount of single
sex education can change that.

The above is excerpted from "Publicly-Supported Single Sex Schools and
Policy Issues" by Bernice R. Sandler, and which
appeared in the New York Law School Journal of Human Rights, Symposium
1997, A Symposium on finding a Path to
Gender Equity: Legal and Policy Issues Raised by All-Female Public
Education, Vol XIV Part One.

*Bernice Resnick Sandler is a Senior Scholar in Residence at the
Washington-based National Association for Women in
Education where she writes the newsletter and consults with and speaks
at educational institutions. She has written extensively
about sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, and often serves
as an expert witness in cases involving educational
institutions, governmental organizations, and businesses. She played a
major role in the development and passage of Title IX
and has been associated with Title IX longer than anyone else. Last
year she consulted with The Citadel on their "female
assimilation plan."

Bernice R. Sandler
National Association For Women in Education 
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW Suite 850
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202 833-3331
Fax: 202 785-5605

Bernice R. Sandler
National Association For Women in Education 
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW Suite 850
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202 833-3331
Fax: 202 785-5605

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