FOGEL: Separating to succeed

We should promote public single-sex education as an option that could help boost student achievement

Boys and girls learn differently. Ever since preschool — at least from my experience — it seems that girls have been better at reading and boys have been better at math and science. Stereotypes aside, studies of the brain have shown that male and female brains differ in how they develop and how they process language. The controversial realm of single-sex education caters toward these learning differences.

It’s generally known that single-sex schools, over the course of the 20th century, became restricted to various types of private schools. However, a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act that allowed for the creation of single-sex public schools has reignited the movement. Within the past decade, the number of public schools in the U.S. that are either entirely single-sex or include single-sex classes has grown from a mere dozen in 2002 to more than 500, according to a 2012 University of Pennsylvania journal. For the sake of American education, I say the number of public schools that offer single-sex education should continue to grow.

Despite criticism of single-sex public education, more and more studies have shown that the benefits of single-sex education outweigh the cons. A 2012 University of Pennsylvania study focused on students in Seoul who were randomly assigned to single-sex and co-ed schools. According to the study, attending the single-sex schools was linked to higher average scores on Korean and English tests as well as higher percentages of graduates attending four-year colleges.

I mention Seoul students because the study was controlled as much as possible for student’s socioeconomic and academic backgrounds. This means that there was an equal distribution of students from different social classes between the co-ed and single-sex schools. Because class background can have a large impact on academic performance, this control poses a problem for critics who insist that single-sex school students perform better on tests merely because they come from more affluent backgrounds.

Single-sex education’s benefits may instead lie in teaching. A comprehensive Stanford study of more than 24,000 eighth graders found that girls learn better when taught by female teachers and boys learn better when taught by male teachers. Although I can’t speak to what other school systems are like, I know that when I was growing up, all of my elementary school teachers and most of my middle school teachers were women. Only when I got to high school and college was I met with male teachers. But if I were to compile a list of my top five teachers of all time, they’d all be men.

My personal experiences clearly don’t speak for all students. But perhaps others share the same thoughts, and perhaps the female-dominated elementary schools tell us why. As the Stanford study points out, there is an increasing gender gap in achievement. Boys are now increasingly less likely than girls to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree. Or girls could just be smarter. Either way, we cannot ignore the effects that the gender of teachers could have on students.

There is no doubt that the U.S. is falling behind in the global education race. A 2013 report by the Council on Foreign Relations shows that although we are spending the most on education, our college drop-out rates are 54 percent compared to the global 31 percent average among developed countries, and preschool enrollment rates are 69 percent compared to the global 81 percent average. Throwing money at schools doesn’t seem to be working and neither does complaining about American students falling behind in test scores. We need solutions.

Single-sex education should not be forced upon students, but it should be promoted as an option. A common argument against single-sex schools is that they promote gender stereotypes. Yet, I think the most valid criticism is that single-sex education decreases boys and girls’ opportunities to work together. Boys and girls, if separated throughout primary and secondary education, will be less experienced with opposite-gender interactions when they reach the outside world. I think that the best solution to this dilemma is to implement single-sex class options into schools. I stress the option aspect because parents and students should always be given a choice.

Already, most of the public schools that offer single-sex education do so within classrooms rather than with full schools. Single-sex classrooms provide an opportunity for boys and girls to be taught by a teacher of the same gender, and allow classes to be catered to specific learning styles. The American education system needs help, and expanding these single-sex classrooms to other public schools may pave the way for increased student achievement.

Jared Fogel is a Viewpoint columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

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