An article in today’s Washington Post magazine looks at the “new experiment” in single-sex classes at the Imagine Southeast Public Charter School in DC. The headline is unfortunate: “Separate but Equal: More Schools are Dividing Classes by Gender.” Critics of single-gender education quickly jump all over the “separate but equal” spectre of invidious discrimination, rooted as that terrible phrase is in one of the worst Supreme Court cases every decided, Plessy v. Ferguson, that reinforced legal racial discrimination by allowing separate facilities for blacks and whites. That awful case was overturned by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education that started the long wave of school and social integration.
The issue for single-gender classes and schools is completely different, but the critics use inflammatory rhetoric comparing single-gender pedagogy to race discrimination. This is simply wrong. The long track record of effective single-sex education belies the critics whose knee-jerk reaction against this effective pedagogy robs children of the opportunity to learn well in environments that focus on their success.
A few points about this “new experiment” —
First, single-sex education is hardly new. In fact, up until the middle of the 20th century, single-sex education was normative in most private schools and some public schools, too. There’s nothing experimental about the genre.
Second, for girls and women, single-sex education has a long and distinguished track record of producing strong, powerful women able to “compete with men” very well, thank you. The roster of prominent women leaders who are graduates of girls schools and women’s colleges is quite long — Trinity, of course, proudly claims Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ’62, former Governor and current Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius ’70, former Presidential Assistant Maggie Williams ’77, Ambassador Susan Burk ’70, Hearst CEO Cathie Black ’66 and many other notables in public, corporate and professional life.
Third, single-gender pedagogy done well is NOT a means to reinforce negative gender stereotypes or to promote less advantage for either gender. Rather, in the right educational hands, this pedagogy brings out the best in each student and promotes greater advantages, not disadvantages.
So, why do so many smart people who want to promote women’s rights and civil rights criticize the movement toward single-gender education? The negativity seems rooted in old ideological stereotypes that need some fresh air. Nobody wants to return to the pre-Title IX days when women could not go to major universities, or, if they did, they got second best. Nobody wants girls to be left in the back of the classroom while boys get all the attention. Neither do we want remediation for discrimination against girls and women to disadvantage boys and men, which is what the current claim seems to be.
Instead, we want the most effective pedagogies possible to make our children successful.
Educators who have worked in single-sex environments know how effective this pedagogy can be for some students. We’d be the first to say it’s not for every student. But for those who can benefit from some classroom experiences with other members of the same gender, why not? Why would we deny any student the opportunity to learn in the most effective environment possible?
Does single-sex education work? Absolutely. If you don’t believe it, come to Trinity!