Why Coeducation Matters

Editor's note: We're presenting different perspectives on single-sex education this week, and we invite your comments.

The recent announcement that Sweet Briar College is shutting down at the end of the academic year has renewed the debate over single-sex education.  As a small, expensive women’s college in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar was fighting an uphill battle against several trends in higher education.  But the one singled out by its own president, President James Jones, Jr. is the declining interest of students in single-sex education.  Over the past half-century, the number of women’s colleges declined from 230 to little more than 40, according to the Women's College Coalition.

The decline reflects the fact that women are doing quite well in higher education, and no longer feel the need for a protected space to develop their intellectual potential.  Women now earn 57 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, 63 percent of the master’s, and 53 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded each year in the U.S.  Of course, most students prefer coeducation because of its social opportunities, but the fact that young women today see themselves as every bit as smart and ambitious as men is certainly another factor making mixed-sex colleges their overwhelming choice for launching their careers.
Ironically, as single-sex education has been struggling at the college level in recent years, it has experienced a resurgence at the K-12 level.  Fueled by a 2006 revision of Title IX regulations, public schools have increasingly been implementing single-sex classrooms, using rationales that resonate across both public and independent sectors.
This is where my interest in the topic arises.  As a neuroscientist who has studied gender development, I’ve been troubled to see the growing academic segregation of girls and boys based on claims about “hardwired” differences in their brains and learning styles.  The short-cut phrase, widely repeated by parents and teachers is that “boys and girls learn differently” and consequently need pedagogical approaches that are tailored by gender.  Even more troubling is to hear children themselves parrot this gender-limited mindset.  In Tampa, Florida, a pair of new single-sex middle schools, Franklin Boys’ and Ferrell Girls’ Preparatory Academies, actually broadcast home-page videos of boys and girls boasting about their supposedly contrasting strengths in vision, hearing, spatial, and social perception that guide their different educational experiences on the two campuses. 
The real data from neuropsychological science paint a very different picture.  Decades of research have identified few innate differences between male and female minds, and for most academic and interpersonal abilities, the sexes actually overlap much more than they differ.  So whereas single-sex education is often predicated on the notion that females and males have inherently different cognitive and emotional styles, the truth is that sex differences in math ability, spatial skill, assertiveness, and competitiveness are much more a product of gender socialization and segregation than of “hardwiring.” 
In other words, it is precisely because girls and boys already spend so much time apart — practicing different activities and policing the very different rules of femininity and masculinity — that  they begin diverging in academic confidence and career interests towards the end of adolescence.  Girls are not avoiding math and science careers because they lag academically in these areas, but because they are forming their career identities at the same time as they are forming their sense of womanhood.  And given the still-prominent level of gender segregation in most careers (along with the extreme feminine and masculine messaging in pop culture), these two identities are just too discordant for many adolescent girls to comfortably make the leap into STEM careers.  (Boys have the same problem in reverse: reconciling their dawning sense of manhood with study of the arts, humanities, and careers like education and health care.)
I would argue that rather than segregating girls and boys, schools should be doing the opposite: deliberately creating more opportunities for both sexes to interact in purposeful collaboration.   Unfortunately, many schools that call themselves “coeducational” are only nominally so:   Boys and girls self-segregate in classrooms and extracurricular activities, with educators either actively encouraging the division, or doing far too little to prevent it (a situation we would not tolerate for racial divisions).   We need to offer more, not fewer opportunities for building respect and partnership across the gender divide.  Research in this area is still growing, but studies in several disciplines are converging to support the benefits of gender inclusion in domains as wide-ranging as bullying prevention, academic motivation, and corporate innovation. 
Single-sex education has a long history in the U.S. and other nations, but it is time to move on.  Like any kind of segregation, it perpetuates the myth of fundamental differences between groups of people and does not serve to prepare young people for today’s diverse society.  Even the U.S. military began training men and women together back in the 1970s and has now integrated women into nearly every position, including combat roles.   If we really want women and men to be equal partners in both the home and workplace, they need to be raised and educated in a truly gender-inclusive way, where both sexes learn through repeated experience how to respect, collaborate with, and lead each other.