The costs and benefits of single-sex schools

Sex-segregated schooling has fallen out of favor in modern times, but there can be tangible benefits for womxn and girls in single-sex schools. How to balance these costs and benefits remains an open question, and there might not be a good answer. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For years, I was staunchly against the concept of single-sex schooling on the basis of my rejection of the gender binary and the “gender differences” so often proliferated by stereotypes. Since the fallacy of “separate but equal” has been used to justify decades of racial oppression, I reasoned there is no way that the nefarious mantra could apply successfully to schooling. Any benefits of all-girls or all-boys schools were due solely to the increased resources available to those students, as the majority of sex-segregated schools are private or parochial. There can be no real benefit to deepening the divide between our harmful gender dichotomy, I thought. For that reason, I constantly disparaged the Catholic school where my mom teaches, refused to apply to any all-girls colleges and saw little reason for single-sex schools to exist in the first place.

It wasn’t until I read a piece by W.E.B. Du Bois titled “Does the Negro need Separate Schools?” that I considered how the benefits of single-sex schooling could mirror the benefits of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Du Bois argues that due to deeply embedded racial prejudice in America, there is no way that a Black student could receive proper education at a white institution—hard stop. While I in no way intend to compare the situation of Black folks in 1935 to that of womxn and girls in 2019, the idea that dominant identities prevent marginalized identities from succeeding applies in both cases. Stereotype threats certainly exist for girls in STEM, as Pohlke and Hyde mention in their review of the pros and cons of single-sex schooling (Child Development Perspectives, “The Debate Over Single-Sex Schooling,” 11.02.2016). However, while Du Bois counterintuitively argues for racially segregated schooling, he does not argue for white-only institutions. He instead asserts the need for spaces in which Black students feel at home for the duration of their schooling—something that is extremely difficult to achieve at historically white colleges. This is proven by demographics of yearly transfer and dropout rates at four-year colleges: In 2017, the dropout rate for Black and Latinx students remained nearly twice as high as the dropout rate for white students (National Center for Education Statistics, “Status Dropout Rates,” 05.2019).

The feminist lens adopted by many in the 1990s takes up this argument, and I too can see a benefit to all-girls schools. Environments with decreased sexual harassment or assault, no competition between genders and no men taking up too much space in classrooms and discussions would presumably lead to a better academic environment for girls.

However, I still struggle to see a good argument for all-boys schools. Just as any school that explicitly restricted its applicants to the dominant race (white) would be completely outrageous, I don’t see any reason why a dominant culture should have its needs tailored to, especially when no great academic advantage is derived from all-male schooling. Pohlke and Hyde mention some success with literacy for minority boys, but I speculate that this has to do with solidarity amongst minority identities— again proving the need for affinity spaces such as HBCUs and all-girls schools. When we look at the research regarding effects of same- and other-gender peer relationships, we see that as early as preschool, boys who were more frequently exposed to other-gender interactions achieved greater academic success and had higher effective readiness (Rubin et al., “Handbook of Peer Interactions, Relationships, and Groups,” 2018). Girls do not show that positive interaction, instead exhibiting detrimental effects from friendships with boys. To me, this provides further evidence of the benefits of all-female schooling, and that boys benefit more from mixed-gender schooling.

Of course, I’m not arguing a paradox; if all girls are schooled together, then that leaves all the boys to be schooled together, and that makes no sense. Instead, I merely suggest the abolishment of all-boys high schools, and the continued encouragement of girls to participate in solidarity with their same-gender peers, just as HBCUs exist alongside many colleges which do not have explicit racial affiliation. Or just as Strong exists alongside the other co-ed dorms at Vassar! There is no need for a “whites only” college or a “males only” college because historically, that was all colleges.

Still, my opinion on this issue continues to waver. Recently, a friend pointed out a potential benefit to all-boys schools: Just as white people need to address racism amongst themselves, men should be taught to dismantle the patriarchy in spaces devoid of women. This could relieve womxn of the emotional and mental burden of educating men on how to be feminists. As social researcher Jackson Katz asserts in his TEDxTalk, sexual assault is a problem that men have the responsibility to solve, yet the forerunners of anti-assault movements are predominantly women (TED, “Violence against women—it’s a men’s issue,” 03.29.2012). If all-boys schools functioned as a place for boys to learn early on how to recognize their privilege, maintain positive friendships with each other and cultivate positive masculinity, I would be completely on board!

Sadly, that is not the reality of sex-segregated schooling. All-male schools leave boys ignorant of the female experience and entirely inept when it comes to taking up the responsibility of recognizing their own toxic masculinity. In typical “Lord of the Flies” fashion, boys’ schools create pockets of unchecked privilege and allow for “locker-room talk” behavior to breed. With neither the proper guidance from adults on dismantling patriarchy nor the social consequences that would occur due to the presence of women, toxic masculinity can run rampant. Moreover, when boys learn to view girls as utterly different from them, the stereotypes that traditionally define male/ female interactions flourish, at best manifesting as chivalry, and at worst as objectification.

In my experience, many parents and teachers will cite the supposed fact that adolescent boys should be schooled away from adolescent girls because their hormones will prevent education. Oh, God forbid our children are distracted by their hormones! Catholic schools seem to uphold these heteronormative gender stereotypes particularly well, considering the different standards of uniform, behavior and sexual education implemented in girls’ versus boys’ schools.

Even as I argue for some benefits of single-sex schooling, I feel frustrated with the way sex-segregation can harm young people’s perceptions of their own and other genders. Aside from the severance between cisgender boys and girls, sex-segregated schooling excludes nonbinary and trans youth by completely invalidating their gender identity. I don’t know if there’s any version of sex-segregated schooling that allows for the gender spectrum; it feels inappropriate and equally invalidating of gender identity to place all trans youth in a separate school. To me, this would imply that a trans girl’s female identity is less valid than a cisgender girl’s female identity. However, I would also worry about the safety of a transmasculine student in an all boys’ school, considering trans youth are already at an extremely high risk for bullying based on their identities. I am unable to posit any realistic reforms to same-sex schooling because I just don’t think it can exist alongside the idea that gender is a spectrum rather than a dichotomy.

I challenge proponents of all-girls and all-boys schools to rethink their reasoning behind the system and moreover, to consider its effect on those whose gender identities do not align with anything as simple as “boy” or “girl.” If we approached girls-only schooling as a privilege afforded to a marginalized group rather than a necessary intervention to protect young people from members of the “opposite” sex, I think single-sex schooling would have some merit. However, those benefits might be better implemented in after-school programs with targeted missions or in the establishment of affinity spaces at school.

Until I hear a better argument for boys’ and girls’ schools, I remain firm in my belief that single-sex schooling does more harm than good.

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