A Right to Choose Single-Sex Education
By Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Senator Barbara Mikulski, Originally published in the Wall Street Journal, 10-17-12
Education proponents across the political spectrum were dismayed by recent attempts to eradicate the single-gender options in public schools in Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Maine and Florida. We were particularly troubled at efforts to thwart education choice for American students and their families because it is a cause we have worked hard to advance.
Studies have shown that some students learn better in a single-gender environment, particularly in math and science. But federal regulations used to prevent public schools from offering that option. So in 2001 we joined with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Susan Collins to author legislation that allowed public schools to offer single-sex education. It was an epic bipartisan battle against entrenched bureaucracy, but well worth the fight.
Since our amendment passed, thousands of American children have benefited. Now, though, some civil libertarians are claiming that single-sex public-school programs are discriminatory and thus illegal.
To be clear: The 2001 law did not require that children be educated in single-gender programs or schools. It simply allowed schools and districts to offer the choice of single-sex schools or classrooms, as long as opportunities were equally available to boys and girls. In the vast and growing realm of education research, one central tenet has been confirmed repeatedly: children learn in different ways. For some, single-sex classrooms make all the difference.
Critics argue that these programs promote harmful gender stereotypes. Ironically, it is exactly these stereotypes that the single-sex programs seek to eradicate.
As studies have confirmed – and as any parent can tell you – negative gender roles are often sharpened in coeducational environments. Boys are more likely, for instance, to buy into the notion that reading isn’t masculine when they’re surrounded by (and showing off for) girls.
Girls, meanwhile, have made so much progress in educational achievement that women are overrepresented in postgraduate education. But they still lag in the acquisition of bachelor’s and graduate degrees in math and the sciences. It has been demonstrated time and again that young girls are more willing to ask and answer questions in classrooms without boys.
A 2008 Department of Education study found that “both principals and teachers believed that the main benefits of single-sex schooling are decreasing distractions to learning and improving student achievement.” The gender slant – the math-is-for-boys, home-ec.-is-for-girls trope – is eliminated.
In a three-year study in the mid-2000s, researchers at Florida’s Stetson University compared the performance of single-gender and mixed-gender classes at an elementary school, controlling for the likes of class sizes, demographics and teacher training. When the children took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (which measures achievement in math and literacy, for instance), the results were striking: only 59% of girls in mixed classes were scored as proficient, while 75% of girls in single-sex ones achieved proficiency. Similarly, 37% of boys in coeducational classes scored proficient, compared with 86% of boys in the all-boys classes.
Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn., the winner of the 2011 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge, went to a 81.6% graduation rate in 2010 from a graduation rate of 55% in 2007. Among the changes at the school? Implementing all-girls and all-boys freshman academies.
In Dallas, the all-boys Barack Obama Leadership Academy opened its doors last year. There is every reason to believe it will follow the success of the first all-girls public school, Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, which started in 2004. Irma Rangel, which has been a Texas Education Agency Exemplary School since 2006, also took sixth place at the Dallas Independent School District’s 30th Annual Mathematics Olympiad that year.
No one is arguing that single-sex education is the best option for every student. But it is preferable for some students and families, and no one has the right to deny them an option that may work best for a particular child. Attempts to eliminate single-sex education are equivalent to taking away students’ and parents’ choice about one of the most fundamentally important aspects of childhood and future indicators of success – a child’s education.
America once dominated educational attainment among developed countries, but we have fallen disastrously in international rankings. As we seek ways to offer the best education for all our children, in ways that are better tailored to their needs, it seems not just counterproductive but damaging to reduce the options. Single-sex education in public schools will continue to be a voluntary choice for students and their families. To limit or eliminate single-sex education is irresponsible. To take single-sex education away from students who stand to benefit is unforgivable.