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Separate but equal: What of single-sex education? January 28, 2011

Posted by Connie Chow in Executive Director Musings, Gender differences?, girls in science, STEM pipeline efforts.
Tags: , , ,

Title IX advocates, civil rights activists and feminists are generally opposed to single-sex education in the public school system since “separate but equal” is seldom, if ever, achieved. Suzanne Beck, the (former) executive director of the National Coalition for Girls’ Schools countered this claim in an  online “debate” last week with Galen Sherwin, staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, by providing evidence of impressive academic achievement of students in the Young Women’s Leadership Network of public schools.

Another objection to single sex schools is squarely laid on the misguided and biased notion that boys and girls learn differently, as Sherwin pointed out eloquently in the counter argument.

This debate is not new, of course. A feature article, Separate but equal: More schools are dividing classes by gender, appeared in the Washington Post last summer just ahead of the school year. For me, the article set off alarm bells about how gender stereotypes are perpetuated in the name of achieving equitable educational outcomes. The type of stereotypes that makes feminists mad. Fortunately it also includes research that shows how these stereotypical behaviors stem from initially minute differences that gets amplified by adults’ stereotyped feedback to children.

For me, the WaPo article set off alarm bells about how gender stereotypes are perpetuated in the name of achieving equitable educational outcomes. The type of stereotypes that makes feminists mad.

So why do we provide single-sex learning environments at Science Club for Girls, you ask? Not because we believe that girls and boys learn differently, as defined by their sex chromosomes (or phenotype, which is typically how they would get sorted). But primarily because girls typically don’t receive the encouragement and affirmation they need to become confident in science, technology, math and engineering in the “world out there”.

The underlying philosophy of Science Club for Girls’ program model is to create environments where girls, no matter the color of their skin, curliness of their hair, the primary language they speak in their home, the occupation or educational level of their guardians, feel safe to explore, to fail, and to try again. We create a space for girls to try on the roles of scientists and engineers; where the message is, “Of course you can!” We encourage them to debate, to be creative, to get messy and to use their brains. In other words, they can adopt behavior and identities that are typically denied them in a co-ed setting.

Why do girls need such an environment?

The AAUW report, Why so Few, Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, suggests that in spite of all we know and do to steer a girl or woman into STEM fields, societal attitudes have had, continues to have, a disproportionately negative influence on their choices and persistence.

As the research study in the WaPo article and many others suggest, the prevailing environment, i.e. visual messages, verbal cues, body language from peers, parents, teachers and society–delivered subtly and not so subtly, directly or indirectly–shapes the dispositions, behaviours and domain knowledge that influence boys’ and girls’ sense of competency and eventual success. And of course these messages of bias are not confined to gender.

So it is the business of adults and society to always be vigilant around stereotypes instead of embracing them, which many proponents of  single-sex schools or classrooms tend to do. (If you think you’re above the fray, try this test to reveal biases that you might not even know you have).

The WaPo article ends a scene from a math class in the girls’ room. Guided by their teacher, Ms. Pointer, a veteran with nine years of experience, figurative light bulbs were turned on in rapid succession. Ms. Pointer’s girls outperforms the boys in the same grade. Ms. Pointer knows how to teach girls because she pats them on their head and coos at them. Right?

The lesson I take from this is not that Ms. Pointer is a good teacher of girls. She’s just a good teacher. Period.

As she herself said, the techniques that she uses around classroom management and setting high expectations work just as well for the male students she’s taught before. Her success lies in her astuteness in picking up cues, listening and responding to students as individuals.

Remember, discrimination is treating everyone the same way when you should treat them differently.

So let’s stop teaching teachers to pigeonhole unique human beings into narrow categories of boy or girl, and let us pay attention to our unexamined assumptions or ideologies that limit children’s learning and prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Let’s create high expectations about our responsibility to all our children and work hard to reform our public education system, direct the necessary professional development and resources, including gender-sensitive training, to teachers, and make sure students receive the support they need to achieve equitable outcomes. And let us dismantle the system of biased beliefs that shackle girls and boys, women and men.

In the mean time, let’s create as many differentiated instructional spaces, literal and figurative, as we can, whether they are in school or out-of-school, so each child can develop the confidence, skills and social network to bravely navigate the imperfect world out there.



1. Katie - January 28, 2011

> in spite of all we know and do to steer a girl or woman into STEM fields,

Trying to steer kids into one field or another gives me heebie-jeebies. Can’t we figure out a way to make kids feel welcome to pursue their passions, without telling them what those passions should or should not be?

Connie Chow - January 28, 2011

Excellent point about letting kids pursue their passions. On the other hand, those forces in society that ARE steering them AWAY from these fields is very strong.

Steer is not the best choice of words. Exposing them to these fields, allowing them to see the possibilities since “you don’t know what you don’t know”, and helping them stay if they want to are what we and others are trying to do.

2. Aizhan - March 3, 2011

Hello, everybody!

Can you spare a few moments to take my survey on single-sex and co-educational schools? Your feedback is very important!


Thanks a lot!

Connie Chow - March 6, 2011

Done! Please do share your results.

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