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.


5/15/2015 12:20:25 PM
I do not agree with Lise Eliot’s wish that all single-sex schools should follow Sweet Briar College’s recent demise but, instead, urge an open mind for those who wish to solve complex educational challenges. The neuroscientists make insightful observations, but do not have all the answers. As someone with over forty years of classroom experience in both coed and single sex classrooms, I tend to agree with Dr. Eliot’s rejection of gender hardwiring, but I firmly believe that boys and girls approach the learning process differently, and those who are interested in best teaching practices should listen to those who work in single-sex schools. The attached New Zealand findings suggest that boys (from all races and economic levels) who attend boys’ schools stay in school longer and achieve higher education success by whatever measure used. Also the attached Daily Beast editorial rebuff’s Eliot’s assertion that single-sex schools work against respect and collaboration between members of the opposite sex. Gender equity is a goal we all share and strive for. Just look at the work of Michael Kimmel and his efforts leading the Center for the Study of Masculinities, an institution that might also make Dr. Eliot’s hit list.

Joseph T. Cox, PhD
Executive Director
International Boys’ Schools Coalition
[email protected] | +01 (484) 432-0612

Achievement in Boys Schools final report June.pdf http://www.nzcer.org.nz/system/files/Achievement%20in%20Boys%20Schools%20%20final%20report%20%20June.pdf

Boys' schools media release.pdf

Daily Beast Editorial

5/13/2015 7:48:04 PM
We applaud Trudy and Megan’s comment—the benefits of a girls’ school education and the contributions of girls’ schools as institutions are unquestioned.

We would add that children and families also benefit from day and boarding, parochial and secular, brick-and-mortar and online educational experiences, as well. With independent schools, families have myriad opportunities that can be embraced for each child, sometimes at different stages in their lives, and sometimes concurrently. As an independent school community, we need to collaborate more—and debate less--to provide the richest possible experience for each child.

Cathy Murphree
Online School for Girls Board President
Asst. Head for Academic Affairs, The Hockaday School

Brad Rathgeber
Online School for Girls Executive Director

5/13/2015 8:38:59 AM
This blog entry by Lise Eliot and the response from Trudy Hall, Megan Murphy and Olivia Haas offers a really clear picture of how discussions about education (what works, how to improve it) can become either/or debates. Although not yet at that point, this one is poised to become such a debate. It invites people to agree with one side or the other and to start lobbing statistics and research back and forth, like Biblical passages in debates about other social issues--death penalty, abortion, gay marriage.

At the moment, the two perspectives make good sense but appear irreconcilable. As the Greek chorus used to say, "Both sides speak well." The research from both sides appears reasonable and valid.

Neuroscience seems to have found few differences in the "hard-wiring" of the male and female brain. Yet, despite sharing similar basic architecture and developmental trajectories, ALL brains do end up being different--the result of endlessly different experiences, genetic predispositions, chemistry and environments and the individual variability in strengths and weaknesses of brain regions and the billions of neural networks that connect them.

It also seems that precisely because of these differences--in this case the differences that result from socio-cultural influences like gender expectations--many (not all) students, both male and female, do benefit from single-sex educational environments. The different experiences of male and female children create differences in their brains--and in their confidence, interests, aspirations, beliefs, feelings, values, etc.

Eliot puts her finger on a significant problem that makes single-sex schools important for some students: "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)." Clearly, if we are to reap the benefits of coeducation that she advocates, we need much better coeducational schools.

As long as we have inadequate coeducational schools, it seems likely that research will continue to support Hall's, Murphy's and Haas's position: "A new report comparing all-girls high school environments to coeducational institutions provides clear evidence that—from academics to personal aspirations—the impact of the all-girls experience positively permeates a girl's life at rates coeducational environments simply cannot match." Perhaps, if we ever create truly coeducational schools, the comparison will produce very different results.

However, we aren't going to make much progress if we fail to look at the issues from flexible perspectives and think deeply about the more complex, interrelated reasons for the validity of the research that each cites. Different perspectives are good starting points, but they seem, more often than not, to create divisiveness and leave us with false dichotomies. Perhaps this time for this issue, we can reconcile the two perspectives and discover many ways to improve school experiences for our children.

5/12/2015 6:16:45 PM
It’s time to challenge the coeducation standard. The evidence supporting the benefits of all-girls schools is abundant.

A new report comparing all-girls high school environments to coeducational institutions provides clear evidence that—from academics to personal aspirations—the impact of the all-girls experience positively permeates a girl's life at rates coeducational environments simply cannot match. At a time when real and resounding inequities remain between women and men in the workforce—from pay disparity to significant leadership gaps in nearly every industry—the report provides compelling evidence that girls' schools offer a worthy solution.

"Steeped in Learning: The Student Experience at All-Girls Schools" analyzed the responses of nearly 13,000 high school girls attending all-girls schools, coeducational independent schools, and coeducational public schools to the 2013 High School Survey of Student Engagement. According to the survey [conducted by the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University], girls attending girls’ schools are more likely to have an experience that supports their learning than are girls attending coeducational schools. In particular, students at all-girls schools report:

1. Having higher aspirations and greater motivation.
2. Being challenged to achieve more.
3. Engaging more actively in the learning process.
4. Participating in activities that prepare them for the world outside of school.
5. Feeling more comfortable being themselves and expressing their ideas.
6. Showing greater gains on core academic and life skills.
7. Being and feeling more supported in their endeavors.

A study released last month by University of Massachusetts at Amherst states that when women make up the majority of a group in an educational environment – specifically in the sciences – they are “more likely to worry less, feel confident and also to speak up and actively contribute to solve the problem at hand.” Another study at UCLA found that, even when accounting for self-selection biases, graduates of girls’ schools enter college with more confidence in their mathematical and computer skills, a greater interest in engineering careers, a stronger scientific orientation, higher SAT scores, and generally a more intellectual orientation towards the purpose of college.

With this supporting research and thousands of successful girls' school graduates as living proof, we now have clear evidence that the coeducational high school environment needs to be challenged.

An all-girls education is a choice made by families because they value the extraordinary benefits of this learning environment.

Trudy Hall
NCGS Board President
Head of Emma Willard School

Megan Murphy
NCGS Executive Director

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