Blog · New York City

Do Single-Sex Schools Hurt or Help Students?

Of the 329 schools designated by the United States Department of Education as 2016 “Blue Ribbon Schools” for superlative success in closing the achievement gap and maintaining high standards, ten are located in New York City. One is the K-8 Excellence Girls Charter School on the border of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, one of only three Brooklyn schools so honored. (The others are P.S. 39 in gentrified Park Slope and the private Big Apple Academy).

Yet here’s an irony: only a few weeks before  Excellence Girls Charter School was ranked among the top educational institutions in the country, headlines were trumpeting: No Benefit to Single-Sex Education.

This conclusion was based on an Australian study that claimed any previously recorded advantages were wiped out when you controlled for socioeconomic status. When wealthy girls were shown to do well in single-sex schools, it was because they would have done well anywhere. (For the record, Excellence Girls Charter School is 73% Free Lunch, the exact inverse of its Park Slope counterpart.)

Considering recent revelations that the majority of studies in the hard sciences have been found impossible to reproduce, it’s difficult to imagine the social sciences are much more accurate. (In fact, this article suggests they are even less so.) For instance, the NYC Department of Education recently released findings confirming their assertion that 4 year olds who participated in the Mayor’s Universal Pre-K program demonstrated improved academic and social-emotional skills. But without a control group, how can you prove that the results were caused by UPK in particular, and not, say, by the children taking public transportation to get there? Or last year’s weather patterns?

It’s the same with this latest study on single-sex schools. Just as one researcher asserts there are no benefits and, in fact, actual harm to the practice, another points to demonstrated success. Sometimes even within the same article!

This piece in The New Daily, opens by saying nothing good comes of single-sex education and, in fact, it leads to the development of gender stereotypes and sexism. Then, a few paragraphs later, the article concedes that children attending co-ed schools are more likely to choose gender-stereotyped subjects to study, as opposed to girls exploring STEM topics and boys gravitating towards the humanities in single-sex schools. Oh, and that the gender of your peer group has a lot less of an effect on the person you become than the attitudes you learned at home.

Well. That certainly settles the issue not at all.

New York City has multiple single-sex schools, public, private and charter.

I sent my sons to an all-boys school, and though both got excellent educations, socially, it was a great fit for one but not the other. When it came to my daughter, I sent her to a co-ed school, because I looked at my rough and tumble little girl with two older brothers, and couldn’t imagine her in an all-girl environment. I thought she’d be a bull in a china shop.

But, either way, I made the choice.

Maybe single-sex schools are good for both boys and girls. Maybe they’re not. The fact that I have two sons who had two completely different experiences at the same school suggests that no one size fits all. Isn’t that assumption what  got us into educational trouble in the first place?

The academics can duke it out in the pages of various journals, but how about letting parents make their own decisions about what sort of school would be the best fit for their particular child?

Whether its Excellence Girls Charter School or the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Harlem (which, for the record, is participating in a Breast Cancer Walk on October 16 – so take that charges of sexism!), not every child is going to thrive at every school. That’s one more reason for advocating an even broader variety of choices and an easier transfer process, so that no child ends up languishing in an inappropriate school.


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