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AEI Debates: Should Single-Sex Education Be Eliminated?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Single-sex education is neither beneficial nor necessary and fails to prepare either boys or girls for their future in American society.

On August 28, AEI and the Independent Women’s Forum cosponsored a debate on single-sex education. The debaters were Lise Eliot, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can Do About It (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (Simon & Schuster). Dr. Eliot spoke first and her introductory remarks are excerpted here. Dr. Sommers’s remarks will be published tomorrow. You can watch the full debate here.

Why is a neuroscientist here debating single-sex schooling? I was honestly agnostic on the topic when I started researching it for my book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain. But any discussion of gender differences in children inevitably leads to this debate, so I felt compelled to dive into the copious research on single-sex schooling. I read every study I could, weighed the existing evidence, and ultimately concluded that single-sex education is not the answer to gender gaps in achievement — or the best way forward for today’s young people. After my book was published, I met several developmental and cognitive psychologists whose work was addressing gender and education from different angles, and we published a peer-reviewed Education Forum piece in Science magazine with the provocative title, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Education.”

Science has very tight space constraints, so we were able to present only a fraction of our evidence. In a nutshell, we showed that three lines of research used to justify single-sex schooling — educational, neuroscience, and social psychology — all fail to support its purported benefits, and so the widely-held view that gender separation is somehow better for boys, girls, or both is nothing more than a myth. 

The Research on Academic Outcomes

First, we reviewed the extensive educational research that has compared academic outcomes in students attending single-sex versus coeducational schools. I have no doubt we will be dueling over many such studies as this debate progresses, and I am prepared to do so, but the overwhelming conclusion when you put this enormous literature together is that the findings are “equivocal” — there is no clear academic advantage of sitting in all-female or all-male classes, in spite of much popular belief to the contrary. I base this conclusion not on any individual study, but on large-scale and systematic reviews of thousands of studies conducted in every major English-speaking country — the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.

When it comes to boys in particular, the data show that single-sex education is distinctly unhelpful for them.

Of course, there are many excellent single-sex schools out there — private, Catholic, and a few public-charter types — but as these careful research reviews have demonstrated, it is not their single-sex composition that makes them excellent. It is all the other advantages that are typically packed into such schools, such as financial resources, quality of the faculty, and pro-academic culture, along with the family background and pre-selected ability of the students themselves that determines their outcomes. When such factors are statistically subtracted from the equation, the advantages of such schools fade away and they are indistinguishable from less-selective schools, or from equally privileged schools that happen to enroll both boys and girls.

A case in point is the study by Linda Sax at UCLA, who used data from a large national survey of college freshmen to evaluate the effect of single-sex versus coeducational high schools. Commissioned by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, the raw findings look pretty good for the funders — higher SAT scores and a stronger academic orientation among women who had attended all girls’ high schools (men weren’t studied.) However, once the researchers controlled for both student and school attributes — measures such as family income, parents’ education, and school resources — most of these effects were erased or diminished, to the point that the researchers found it reasonable to conclude “that the marginal benefits do not justify the potential threats to gender equity brought on by academic sex segregation.”

When it comes to boys in particular, the data show that single-sex education is distinctly unhelpful for them. Among the minority of studies that have reported advantages of single-sex schooling, virtually all of them were studies of girls. There are no rigorous studies in the United States that find single-sex schooling is better for boys, and in fact, a separate line of research by economists Caroline Hoxby at Stanford and by Victor Lavy at Hebrew University and AnalĂ­a Schlosser at Princeton has shown that both boys and girls exhibit greater cognitive growth over the school year based on the “dose” of girls in a classroom. In fact, boys benefit even more than girls from having larger numbers of female classmates. So single-sex schooling is really not the answer to the current “boy crisis” in education.

Brain and Cognitive Development

The second line of research often used to justify single-sex education falls squarely within my area of expertise: brain and cognitive development. It’s been more than a decade now since the “brain sex movement” began infiltrating our schools, and there are literally hundreds of schools caught up in the fad. Public schools in Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and many other states now proudly declare on their websites that they separate boys and girls because “research solidly indicates that boys and girls learn differently,” due to “hard-wired” differences in their brains, eyes, ears, autonomic nervous systems, and more.

Current neuropsychological research does not support the myth that ‘boys and girls learn differently.’ The mechanisms by which our brains learn language, math, physics, and every other subject do not differ between boys and girls.

These websites all sound remarkably similar, and it is easy to see why. All of these statements can be traced to just a few would-be neuroscientists, especially physician Leonard Sax (no relation to Linda Sax) and therapist Michael Gurian, both of whom are masters at cherry-picking, extrapolating, and sometimes just making up claims about sex differences in the brain to validate their profitable teacher education enterprises. Each gives lectures, runs conferences, and does a lot of professional development on so-called “gender-specific learning.” I dissected their various claims about sex differences in hearing, vision, language, math, stress responses, and “learning styles” in my book and a long peer-reviewed paper. Other neuroscientists and psychologists have similarly debunked their work. In short, current neuropsychological research does not support the myth that “boys and girls learn differently.” The mechanisms by which our brains learn language, math, physics, and every other subject do not differ between boys and girls. Of course, learning does vary a lot between individual students, but research reliably shows that this variance is far greater within populations of boys or girls than between the two sexes. In other words, any two boys are as likely to differ in learning style as any single boy and single girl.

Nonetheless, the myth of gender learning differences has become well-accepted among certain teachers and school leaders. Even more distressing is that you can now find students spouting this stuff. Here, for example, are middle school students at the Ferrell Girls’ Preparatory Academy in Tampa, Florida, declaring in the school’s homepage video:

Science shows us that there are basic biological and neurological differences in males and females. . . . We have strong senses of smell and hearing, tend to adapt to more types of light, and . . . are usually able to read facial expressions and body language well. . . . We work and relate well in face-to-face situations. Our frontal cortex matures early, which means we are less likely to be impulsive.

Compare this to the kids two miles away, at Franklin Boys’ Preparatory Academy, who explain their strengths and weaknesses in their homepage video:

Boys generally have strong development in certain areas of the right hemisphere of the brain, providing them with heightened spatial skills such as map reading, mechanical skills, and measuring. Boys rely more heavily on non-verbal communication, rather than on verbalizing feelings and responses. . . . Research shows that boys tend to respond to louder voices and sounds. Boys also tend to hear better with their right ear. The composition of the male eye makes it attuned to motion and directions. Boys interpret the world as objects moving through space. . . . The male eye is drawn to cooler colors such as silver, blue, black, gray, and brown. A boy’s autonomic nervous system causes him to be more alert when standing and moving.

I would love to spend the next hour [of this debate] correcting each of these claims (or better yet, fly to Tampa and explain the real science to these students), but in the interest of time, I will simply note that when federal Judge Joseph Goodwin ruled a year ago against the single-sex classes at Van Devender Middle School in Wood County, West Virginia, he agreed that the school had been “led astray by the teachings of Dr. Leonard Sax,” and the judge even referred to brain sex rationales for single-sex education as “pseudoscience.”

Here’s the problem: the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits separation of students by sex in public education that is based on precisely this kind of “overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females.” And the reason it is prohibited is because it leads far too easily to stereotyping and sexism. 

Social Developmental Psychology

Which brings me to the third area of research that fails to support single-sex schooling and indeed suggests the practice is actually harmful: social-developmental psychology.

It is a well-proven finding in social psychology that segregation promotes stereotyping and prejudice, whereas intergroup contact reduces them — and the results are the same whether you divide groups by race, age, gender, body mass index, sexual orientation, or any other category. What’s more, children are especially vulnerable to this kind of bias, because they are dependent on adults for learning which social categories are important and why we divide people into different groups.

It is a well-proven finding in social psychology that segregation promotes stereotyping and prejudice, whereas intergroup contact reduces them — and the results are the same whether you divide groups by race, age, gender, body mass index, sexual orientation, or any other category.

You don’t have to look far to find evidence of stereotyping and sexism in single-sex schools. First, there was the failed single-sex experiment in California, where six school districts used generous state grants to set up separate boys’ and girls’ academies in the late 1990s. Once boys and girls were segregated, teachers resorted to traditional gender stereotypes to run their classes, and within just three years, five of the six districts had gone back to coeducation. Similarly, a recent study of middle schoolers in Arizona found that students’ own stereotyped views of “Who is better at math?” and “Who is better at language arts?” increased directly in proportion to the number of single-gender classes (between one and eight) each child was enrolled in. Other research by Valerie Lee — originally a proponent of single-sex schooling — found the most extreme sexism and homophobia in all-boys’ schools, along with a “pernicious sexism,” or dumbing down of science and math, in all-girls’ schools. (Dr. Lee actually changed her mind about single-sex education based on these findings.)

At the same time, researchers are increasingly discovering benefits of gender interaction in youth. A large British study found that children with other-sex older siblings exhibit less stereotypical play than children with same-sex older siblings, such as girls who like sports and building toys and boys who like art and dramatic play. Another study of high school social networks found less bullying and aggression the higher the density of mixed-sex friendships within a given adolescent network. Then there is the finding we cited in our Science paper of higher divorce and depression rates among a large cohort of British men who attended single-sex schools as teenagers, which might be explained by the lack of opportunity to learn about relationships during their formative years.

Whether in nursery school, high school, or the business world, gender segregation narrows our perceptions of each other, facilitating stereotyping and sexist attitudes. It’s very simple: the more we structure children and adolescents’ environment around gender distinctions and separation, the more they will use these categories as the primary basis for understanding themselves and others.

Gender is an important issue in education. There are gaps in reading, writing, and science achievement that should be narrower. There are gaps in career choice that should be narrower — if we really want to maximize human potential and American economic growth. But stereotyping boys and girls and separating them in the name of fictitious brain differences is never going to close these gaps.

When it comes to learning, and to the social and moral development that are the purpose of public education, boys and girls are far more similar than different, and the better we can truly integrate them in classrooms, the better for all.

Nor can segregation ever hope to help eliminate sexism, gender-based discrimination, or sexual harassment. The only way to promote respectful, positive relationships between different groups of people is through shared experience. In this vein, I believe that even coeducation could be dramatically improved. Just getting boys and girls into the same classroom isn’t always enough to get them to work together and to value each other as individuals. Parents, teachers, and schools could do much more to encourage positive gender interactions and overcome the stereotype threat that hinders both sexes academically.

Exactly 50 years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood just a few miles from here on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and famously said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

To me, it’s very simple: substitute the words “their gender” for “the color of their skin” and you can see why all this emphasis on sex difference and segregation is so deeply disturbing. When it comes to learning, and to the social and moral development that are the purpose of public education, boys and girls are far more similar than different, and the better we can truly integrate them in classrooms, the better for all.

Lise Eliot is an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University.

FURTHER READING: Christina Hoff Sommers provides "Lessons from a Feminist Paradise on Equal Pay Day" and "A Quick Fix for the Gender Wage Gap."  Charlotte Allen wonders if women should "Lean In… to Government?" Diana Furchtgott-Roth discusses "Women and the Unequal Pay Myth." Stan Veuger investigates "Sexism and Maternity Leave Around the World," while Kevn A. Hassett contributes "Boys Left Behind." Mark J. Perry blogs "The Real Gender Gap? College Degrees."

Image by Diana Ingram / Bergman Group and AEI

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