Sara at Diotima defends the Bush administration’s new rules encouraging single-sex education by pointing out how many folks, including feminists, have praised single-sex colleges.
Sara is right that single-sex colleges don’t seem to have hurt anyone. However, there’s a big difference between a single-sex school and a single-sex classroom. The country as a whole is so large that the existence of a handful of single-sex academies doesn’t noticeably affect the sex ratio in co-ed colleges. In a setting like a single school, however, a strong program of single-sex classrooms for girls could leave the school’s “co-ed” classrooms with a high ratio of boys to girls. This could be detrimental to both girl and boy students who might not learn as well in a boy-dominated environment as they would in a balanced co-ed environment. Plus, if this program draws the best students away from co-ed classrooms, that also could harm the prospects of the students in the regular classes.
Normally I’d say “too bad” – students who’d benefit from a single-sex program shouldn’t sacrifice their interests to improve prospects for others. However, virtually every well-designed study of single-sex education finds that single-sex ed offers no benefit to students once other factors (such as income and class size) are accounted for. So it seems that single-sex classrooms might well make things worse for some students without actually providing any academic benefit.
Hopefully any research on single-sex classrooms will study not only the results for the students in the program, but for the students in the rest of the school.
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Another problem with the new legislation is that it has virtually no rules to prevent “separate but unequal” education. Under the Bush administration’s newly proposed rules, it’s possible we’ll see boys-only trips to mock congress in Washington, D.C. justified as “equal in the aggregate” because girls have the opportunity to take a co-ed civics class back at home. Or perhaps some particularly great programs – computer animation in the boys’ school, parenting courses in the girls’ school, whatever – will end up being offered only to one sex. In a California experiment with separate-but-equal schools, a class on “settling the Western frontier” was broken down like this: “the boys’ lessons were enriched by an activity on survival skills. Girls, on the other hand, learned to quilt and sew.” (Education Week, 05/30/2001)
To be fair, the Bush program doesn’t mandate such abuses; it just opens the door to them. Whether or not such abuses actually happen depends on how the new rules play out in school systems and in the courts.
But when there’s so little evidence that students benefit from single-sex education, why even open that door?