Here’s a riddle for you. What do these people all have in common?
- Nancy Pelosi (D-California), first woman Speaker of the House
- Dr. Sally Ride , first American woman to fly in space
- Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts)
- Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)
- Dr. Madeleine Albright , first woman Secretary of State
- Dr. Condoleezza Rice, first woman National Security Advisor
- Dr. Bernadine Healy, only woman to lead the National Institutes of Health
- Drew Gilpin Faust, only woman President of Harvard
- Christine Todd Whitman (R), first woman governor of New Jersey
- Rosa Parks, Birmingham bus boycott
- Al Gore, former Vice President,
- Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts)
Answer: They all graduated from single-sex schools.
That’s remarkable, because in the United States, fewer than one percent of adults have ever attended a single-sex school. The United States is an outlier among English-speaking countries in this respect. In Australia, New Zealand, England, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and South Africa, single-sex education is widely available, either in public schools or in very low-cost private schools. Even among private schools in the United States, coed schools outnumber single-sex schools fourteen to one. America simply does not have a widespread tradition of single-sex education.
Despite their rarity, graduates of single-sex schools account for a wildly disproportionate share of high achievers in every sphere of American society. These schools are so few in number, and their graduates’ success so out of proportion to their numbers, that their class reunions sometimes look like a gathering of the most accomplished people in American life. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi graduated from the same girls’ school attended by Senator Barbara Mikulski. Christine Todd Whitman, the first woman governor of New Jersey and the only woman ever to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, graduated from the same girls’ school which Sigourney Weaver attended, the Chapin School in New York. Reese Witherspoon graduated from the same girls’ school, Harpeth Hall in Tennessee, which Amy Grant (singer) and Tracy Caulkins (arguably the greatest American swimmer of either sex who has ever lived) attended.
In the past five years, there has been an extraordinary surge of interest in single-sex public education. Five years ago, only 16 public schools in the United States offered any kind of single-sex educational opportunities. In 2007-2008, more than 300 public schools will offer single-sex classrooms. Most of those schools are in the southeastern United States, particularly in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina. More than half the school districts in South Carolina have schools offering single-sex classrooms in the 2007-2008 school year. South Carolina State Superintendent Jim Rex recently announced the appointment of David Chadwell to the newly-created post of “Director of Single-Gender Initiatives”; the first time in U.S. history that an individual has been appointed to promote single-sex public education on a statewide basis. Chadwell also serves as director of the Southeastern Chapter of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education.
Three hundred schools sounds like a lot, and it’s certainly a large increase over the 16 schools back in 2002. But 300 schools doesn’t sound like very many when you consider that there are more than 90,000 public schools in the United States. Three hundred schools is less than one tenth of one percent of the total.
North Carolina has a handful of single-sex schools. For girls, there’s Saint Mary’s in Raleigh, and the Salem Academy in Winston-Salem. Christ School is an outstanding boys’ school in Arden (near Asheville). There’s just one problem with these schools: they’re all private. If families don’t have $15,000 a year or more, to spend on their child’s education, this option isn’t open to them.
Unfortunately, this is the case in most cities and towns around the United States. Those who can’t afford $15,000 a year or more for private school tuition don’t have the choice of same sex education. Unlike parents in almost every other English-speaking country, middle-class parents in the United States have to send their child to a coed school, regardless of their child’s needs, interests, or abilities.
That’s what prompted the establishment of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education (NASSPE) five years ago, with some amazing results in that short time period. For example, four years ago, Stewart Elementary School was a coed school in a low-income neighborhood of Toledo, Ohio when the Toledo Public Schools decided to reinvent it as an all-girls school. In the last year that the school was coed, only 19 percent of the girls passed the state proficiency test. In the first year after the school adopted the single-sex format, 91 percent of the girls scored proficient. They retained the same class size, the same curriculum, same teachers, and the same students. But by adopting the single-sex format, the school was able to climb from the bottom to the top, maintaining high test scores and grades for four consecutive years. Foley Intermediate School, in rural Baldwin County, Alabama, offers another example. This school was recently awarded a cash prize from the state of Alabama for being among the most successful schools in the state at closing the achievement gap between black and white students. After Foley Intermediate adopted the single-sex format, the performance of the white students improved, and the performance of the black students (both girls and boys) soared so high that the racial gap in achievement nearly vanished. Many more success stories like these can be found on the NASSPE Web page Single-Sex vs. Coed: the Evidence.
Of course merely putting the girls in one room and the boys in another doesn’t accomplish much. The teachers must be provided with training in how to take advantage of thee single-sex format. . Most teachers in the United States have never had any training in evidence-based best practices for single-sex classrooms—practices which are remarkably different from best practices for coed classrooms.
Despite the success of so many single-sex schools and classrooms, the NASSPE doesn’t believe that every child should be educated in a single-sex classroom. This decision always should be left up to the parents. In this respect, NASSPE is following the lead of Senator Hillary Clinton (a graduate of Wellesley) who said that “there should not be any obstacle to providing single-sex choice within the public school system.” It’s not difficult, logistically, for most schools to offer parents a choice: a boys’ classroom, a girls’ classroom, and a coed classroom. The school offers the same curriculum, the same resources, and the same teachers with a choice of formats. More information about public schools around the United States which have been successful with this approach is available at the NASSPE Web page Single-Sex Classrooms.
Opponents often use the phrase “separate but equal” when they attack single-sex public education. “Separate but equal” of course is a reference to the South before Brown v Board of Education, when the education of blacks and whites were separate but anything but equal. Jim Crow laws were not about giving parents more choices. However, the movement for single-sex public education is all aboutexpanding choices, giving parents a choice between single-sex and coed public education.
Every girl and every boy is unique. Why not let parents choose which format would be best for their child: single-sex or coed? Let parents decide.
— Leonard Sax, MD, PhD
Leonard Sax is executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, on the web at www.singlesexschools.org. He is the author of two books on gender differences: Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences (Doubleday, 2005) and Boys Adrift: the Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men (Basic Books, forthcoming August 2007).