Should single-sex education be allowed?

That’s the question the NYT’s Room for Debate series asked yesterday, in light of a new review of research that finds that single-sex education isn’t good for students of any gender.

The authors of the study wrote:

Past reviews and our own peer-reviewed research led us to conclude that academic achievement is not superior in single-sex schools after controlling for qualities of children at entry (for example, socioeconomic status) and programs (demanding curriculums, for instance).

Additionally, based on voluminous research of the negative effects of separating people into groups, we warned that single-sex classrooms would likely generate and exacerbate stereotyping and sexist attitudes. Rather than promoting gender segregation, public schools should be striving to teach a diverse body of students to work together and to respect each other.

Jane Dammen McAuliffe, the president of the women’s college Bryn Mawr, argues that the report fails to take larger cultural forces into account, and that single sex education makes women and girls more likely to try and stay in traditionally male-dominated fields of study and work. “Even after the majority of U.S. colleges and universities have gone coed, women’s colleges continue to prepare an inordinate percentage of their students to succeed in fields traditionally dominated by men,” she writes.  Bryn Mawr apparently ranks second in the nation in the percentage of women students graduating with degrees in math, ranking higher than Cal Tech and MIT. Given how desperately we need more women in math and similarly traditionally male-dominated fields, that’s nothing to sniff at.

I spent six years in an all-girls school (grades 7-12), and I’m very glad I did. Single-sex education is, I think, more common in Australia than it is in the States, and it’s not restricted to private schools – some of Sydney’s best public high schools are single-sex. My parents planted the seeds of my feminism long before seventh grade, by my all-girls school, where we could be outspoken and smart and not worry that it might make the boys like us less, was the water that helped the tree grow tall. The culture of all-girls environments has its flaws, and the same can of course be said for co-ed environments. It worked for me, and for many of my classmates – and didn’t work so well for others.

Over at Room for Debate, Christina Hoff “Feminism is Ruining Boys” Summers argues that single-sex education should remain a legal option. She says that single-sex schooling doesn’t work for everyone, “but it can help some students to become more focused and well-rounded. Girls cannot leave it to boys to dissect the frog, and boys cannot leave it to girls to edit the school newspaper.” I don’t often find myself agreeing with Hoff Summers, but I think this might be one of those rare occasions. But these findings suggest we’re both wrong. The discussion at Room for Debate is really thought-provoking – and the larger questions of whether single-sex education is good, and whether it should even be legal, are very important ones.

What do you think? Should single-sex education be illegal?

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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