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Education Matters: A new take on pro-choice

Published on: January 27, 2014

female signA call for education topics on Facebook yielded an age-old question: the benefits of single gender versus co-ed education.

Like many parents of girls, I want to be sure my daughters are not squelched in the classroom. When it came time for each of them to enter middle school, a few of their friends enrolled in one of two independent, all-girls schools in our city. This was a move I had never considered, because I appreciate the balance boys and men bring to an environment.

For the most part, single-gender education in the U.S. boils down to making a choice, and in most instances, that choice involves an independent or parochial school.

The options seem more abundant for girls, with both parochial and secular choices. For boys, the only non-parochial, single-gender school I could find in the Pacific Northwest is St. George’s School, a grades 1–12 boys’ prep school in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

My hunch is that a number of factors are responsible for the demand for girl-centric learning environments in an era when women are being encouraged to “lean in.” Although girls have made great strides in education (more girls enter college than boys and, once there, girls are less likely to drop out), gender-based wage gaps persist (according to the Women’s Funding Alliance, the Seattle metropolitan area has the worst gender pay gap in the U.S.), as does the glass ceiling and disproportion of men versus women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. 

male gender signBut boys may be having their own moment in the sun, thanks to books such as Rosalind Wiseman’s Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World. It turns out boys have unique learning needs that may be as acute as those of girls. More is now known about brain-based gender differences and the resulting differences in how learning happens for boys versus girls.

St. George’s School’s approach to “boy-centered learning” was developed in response to neurological observations about male brain development.  

As a result, the school emphasizes kinesthetic (hands-on) learning and de-emphasizes teacher-centered classrooms with prolonged lecturing and note-taking. Boys are held accountable to a well-defined values system and rules structure, are encouraged to participate in team-based learning and athletics, and are supported in developing strong organizational skills.

The school is participating in a research study commissioned by the International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) and conducted by Adam Cox, Ph.D., author of Locating Significance in the Lives of Boys.

Equal opportunity education

Not everyone believes that single-gender education is a good thing. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is waging a battle against this practice in public schools, arguing that scientific theories about the differences between boys and girls have largely been debunked.

“The ACLU has long fought to end the practice of separating boys and girls in public schools based on discredited ‘science’ that is rooted in outdated gender stereotypes,” reads the introduction to the ACLU’s “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign, launched in the spring of 2012.

In 2001, a group of female senators, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, fought to pass legislation enabling public schools to offer single-sex education. As a result, single-gender public education is legal in the U.S., as long as comparable opportunities are made available to both sexes.

An ACLU preliminary study issued at the start of its campaign reported that at least 500 public schools in the U.S. allow some form of single-sex instruction.

According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, as of October 2012, there were 39 single-gender public schools in Washington state. Most were either detention centers, alternative schools or were so small that, at the time of reporting, they had no boys or girls enrolled.

The ACLU believes that gender segregation in public schools is out of compliance with the groundbreaking 1972 Title IX law, intended to promote gender equity in education. Proponents of the campaign liken single-sex education to racial segregation.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education announced new regulations under Title IX that clarified the standards that allow single-gender public schools and classrooms.

As a result of ACLU legal actions since the start of its campaign, schools in Birmingham, Ala.; La Crosse, Wis.; and Woods County, W.Va. have agreed to abandon single-sex programs.

In a subsequent joint editorial, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Barbara Mikulski, authors of the 2001 legislation, said, “To limit or eliminate single-sex education is irresponsible. To take single-sex education away from students who stand to benefit is unforgivable.”

Does single-gender education promote stereotypes or eradicate them? Like so many of the debates over education, the jury is still out.

I asked my daughters and a friend if they regret not having gone to a single- gender school.

“Not for a minute,” my ninth-grade daughter said. “I don’t feel overshadowed by boys,” she added. “The best students in my math and science classes are girls.” The friend, a seventh-grader, admitted she had considered enrolling in an all-girls school because “boys can be so disruptive.”

But my seventh-grade daughter, who has regaled us for the past several years with appreciative tales of boys’ classroom antics, kept silent. I think I saw her smile.

Education news

Seattle school start times:  At its January 22 meeting, the Seattle School Board postponed its annual vote on Transportation Standards for the coming school year, along with an amendment proposed by School Board President Sharon Peaslee, that would have made all schools start ten minutes later. SPS is seeking to reduce transportation costs by implementing a three-tier bus schedule. There is public concern about schools in the first tier of bus arrivals starting too early, and schools in the third tier starting and ending too late. Director Peaslee plans to bring a full resolution to the Board making later start times for secondary schools a priority, based on adolescent sleep needs. The resolution would direct SPS to make this a priority for the 2015-16 school year and conduct a comprehensive public information campaign.

Peaslee says her proposal will be reviewed by the Board's Operations Committee on Feb 13, introduced at the School Board meeting on March 5, discussed at the School Board retreat on March 8, and voted on at the March 19 School Board meeting.

 There will also be further discussion of Transportation Standards for 2014 at the Board's Budget Work Session on January 30 (4:00-6:30pm), including clarification of the staff analysis of 10 minute later times for all three tiers. Transportation Standards will be voted on at the February 5 School Board meeting.

Here are details on the proposed Transportation Standards.  Public input on school arrival times can be submitted to



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