By Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.
Today's important quarrel in public education is the debate over single-sex education. With politicians, school administrators, activists, scientific researchers, teachers, and parents weighing in on the subject, the battle will only get bigger. One reason is that the basic premise underlying Title IX -- that there are no educationally-meaningful, biologically-determined differences between the sexes -- is now beginning to show its age.
ohn Fairhurst was discouraged. As the principal of Shenfield High School, he had watched his students' academic performance decline slowly, year by year, like a sand castle melting in the tide. It wasn't only that the students' scores on standardized tests were going down. Students just didn't seem to care about learning any more. What to do?
Taking his cue from studies suggesting that students at single-sex schools have more zest for learning, Fairhurst decided to reinvent his school as two single-sex academies under one roof. The students would take the same courses from the same teachers, but boys and girls would attend separate classes. Fairhurst put the change into effect in 1994. Since then, the proportion of Shenfield boys achieving high scores on standardized tests has risen by 26 percent. The girls' performance has improved only slightly less, by 22 percent, and the girls still outperform the boys.
Shenfield High School is in England. The academic turnaround at Shenfield High has received wide press coverage throughout the United Kingdom and is already being copied at other British schools.
Researchers at Manchester University (also in England) decided to investigate this marvel, to test whether the success achieved at Shenfield could be replicated at other schools. The researchers chose five diverse public schools and arranged for students at each school to be assigned to single-sex or coed classrooms. The results showed a tremendous advantage for single-sex education, for both sexes. Sixty-eight percent of boys in single-sex classes subsequently passed a standardized test of language skills, versus 33 percent of the boys in coed classes. Among the girls, 89 percent assigned to single-sex classes passed the test, versus 48 percent of girls in coed classes.
The Trouble with Title IX
t is said that great minds think alike. At the same time that Fairhurst was reinventing his school as an amalgam of two single-sex academies, Anthony Pilone, principal of the Myrtle Avenue Middle School in Irvington, New Jersey, came up with precisely the same idea. The two schools could hardly be more different. Shenfield is a tree-lined, upper-middle-class suburb in Essex; Irvington is a lower-income African-American community on the outskirts of Newark. Just as at Shenfield High, all students at the Myrtle Avenue Middle School continued to take the same classes, but for each subject there was now one class for girls and a separate class for boys. It didn't take long to see results. After only one year, test scores began rising. More importantly, Pilone sensed a new enthusiasm for learning among his six hundred students.
Then a new superintendent came to town. The new boss, Peter Carter, informed Pilone that the single-sex arrangement was a violation of Title IX, the federal law barring sex-segregated education in public schools. Carter ordered Pilone to shut the program down. "I'm not saying it was good or bad," Superintendent Carter explained. "It was simply illegal."
Pilone was outraged. Creating the single-sex environment was, in his words, "probably the only thing I have ever done as a principal that had the full support of the staff, the parents, the students, and the administration. It just went so well," he said. "But now we are back to where we were."
Sex Differences: Real or Imaginary?
n 1969, Naomi Weisstein published a provocative essay entitled "Woman as Nigger." She asserted that women of all races are victims of discrimination in American society in much the same way as African Americans were. "Except for their genitals," Weisstein wrote, "I don't know what immutable differences exist between men and women." At the time of her essay, civil rights activism was still confined primarily to race relations. Women's rights took a distinctly subordinate place. When Stokely Carmichael was asked what position women should assume in the civil rights movement, he responded, famously, "prone." Leading feminists agreed with Weisstein that women were victims of oppression by the dominant white male patriarchy. The civil rights movement ought to include women's rights, they said.
In July 1970, Edith Green (D-Oregon) was the first member of Congress to hold hearings on sex discrimination in education. The following year, five bills were introduced to ban sex discrimination in all educational facilities that receive federal funds. A House-Senate conference committee ironed out the differences between the House and Senate education bills, creating what ultimately became known as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The Senate passed Title IX on May 22, 1972; the House, with little debate, followed suit on June 8. President Nixon signed the bill into law on June 23, 1972--precisely the same day that he first ordered the coverup of the Watergate break-in.
The primary motivation for Title IX was to ban blatant sex discrimination in public schools and on college campuses. Before the passage of Title IX, it was not unusual for qualified female professors to be denied tenure solely because they were women. Women administrators who sought to become principals and superintendents were often told, "No women need apply." It wasn't unusual in the pre-Title IX era for a high school or college to devote 90 percent or more of their athletic budget to the boys' sports. Girls' sports were an afterthought.
One unintended consequence of Title IX, however, was the de facto elimination of single-sex education as an option in American public schools. One of the regulations implementing Title IX (34 CFR ñ106.34) specifically stated that no public school shall "provide any course or otherwise carry out any of its education program or activity separately on the basis of sex." That would seem to outlaw any form of single-sex education in public schools. But another of the Title IX implementing regulations--34 CFR ñ106.35(b)--specifically allows single-sex education in public schools, provided that "comparable courses, services, and faciliities are made available" to both sexes.
The legislators who wrote Title IX believed that they were simply creating a natural extension to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Schools were already prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, or national origin. Shouldn't sex be added to that list as well? Of course it should.
Or should it? How real, how meaningful are the differences between girls and boys, women and men? Are those differences genetically programmed, culturally derived, or something in between? For more than thirty years, sociologists like Weisstein have proclaimed that human sex differences are socially constructed. If you raised your son to play with dolls and your daughter to play with trucks, then everything might be different.
Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna, in an influential book published in 1978, argued that even biological sex itself is "socially constructed." They seriously maintained that the division of the human race into female and male is a social invention, not a straightforward biological fact deriving from the chromosomal differences between female and male. "All the scientific evidence indicates that chromosomes have little or no direct effect on whether persons feel that they are female or male," they wrote. "There is no evidence linking gender chromosomes to any specific behavior. There is no evidence that chromosomes themselves have any direct effect on gender role."
More recent advocates of this position, such as sociologist Judith Lorber, argue that we must analyze "gender as a social structure that has its origins in the development of human culture, not in biology or procreation. ... Gender is a human invention." Lorber insists that we must "challenge the validity, permanence, and necessity of gender."
Are they right? If there aren't any meaningful innate differences between girls and boys, then single-sex education really doesn't make much sense. If there aren't any real differences between girls and boys in terms of how they learn or how their brains work, then separating the sexes may just perpetuate gender stereotypes. But if girls and boys do differ fundamentally and innately in what they like to read, how they study, and how they learn, then single-sex education--and the opportunity it offers to custom-tailor learning to the student--starts to make sense.
In April 2001, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report entitled Does Sex Matter? The Academy announced that sex does matter, that there are immutable biological differences between the sexes which go far beyond the genitals. "There are multiple, ubiquitous differences in the basic cellular biochemistries of males and females," according to the report, and "these differences do not necessarily arise as a result of differences in the hormonal regime to which males and females are exposed, but are a direct result of the genetic differences between the two sexes." One chapter is devoted to analysis of sex differences in psychology and behavior, differences that the report concludes are grounded first and foremost in "basic genetic and physiological differences" and are only partly amenable to environmental influences. The basic premise underlying Title IX--that there are no educationally meaningful, biologically determined differences between the sexes--turns out to be false. Let's take a closer look at some of those "hard-wired" sex differences.
If we turn our attention to the brain, we confront an avalanche of data compiled over the past thirty years showing that there are, indeed, major differences between the sexes in brain structure and development. Girls' brains develop faster, for starters. Suppose you do an ultrasound examination on a pregnant woman when she is twenty-four weeks into her pregnancy. Neuroscientists Reuwen and Anat Achiron have shown that just by doing an ultrasound of the baby's brain, you can distinguish female from male: a female baby's brain is more mature.
A girl's brain remains more mature than a boy's brain from birth through childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. The brain of a six-year-old boy looks like the brain of a four-year-old girl; the brain of a seventeen-year-old boy looks like the brain of an eleven-year-old girl. The men don't catch up with the women until about age thirty.
In some areas, the boys may never catch up. Neuroscientists at Harvard University have used sophisticated magnetic resonance imaging to examine how emotion is processed in the brain of children between the ages of seven and seventeen. In all young children, they found that emotional activity was localized in primitive subcortical areas of the brain. In adolescence, the locus of emotional control shifts to the more rational, more "evolved" cerebral cortex--but only in girls. In boys, the command center for emotion remains firmly rooted in the primal subcortical nuclei.
This sex difference persists into adulthood. German researchers have found that the brain activity associated with emotion remains "stuck" in the subcortical nuclei in men, while in women this activity is distributed entirely in the cerebral cortex.
Given that the female brain develops more rapidly than the male, it should come as no surprise that girls, on average, acquire language skills more rapidly and proficiently than boys do. As soon as children begin to speak, girls articulate better than boys do. Girls' sentences are also longer and more complex. Girls' superior verbal abilities appear to be independent of culture and race. One South African study found that girls outperformed boys in all verbal tasks studied, and that the size of the sex difference was roughly the same in blacks, whites, and Indians. Another study compared Japanese high schoolers with high-school students in Miami, Florida. Once again, the girls outperformed the boys by a large margin; the margin in Japan was nearly identical to that in Miami. Girls get better grades than boys do, on average, in every subject in school, including math and science. The U.S. Department of Education reports that eleventh-grade boys write, on average, at the same level as eighth-grade girls.
Additionally, the learning styles of boys and girls differ in ways that are now fairly well understood (and which were not as well recognized in 1972). Girls thrive in noncompetitive, collaborative learning situations; boys are motivated more effectively by competitive environments with clearly defined winners and losers. Girls are much more likely to keep records, set goals, and consult adults for help in schoolwork; boys are less likely to employ any of these strategies. In learning basic math skills, young girls tend to use overt strategies such as counting on fingers or using manual counters; boys are more likely to use covert strategies, working out the problem in their heads. One of the most consistent findings in education research is the different reading preferences of boys and girls. Girls prefer short stories and novels; boys are more likely to choose factual accounts of real events (battles, sports, adventures) or illustrated descriptions of the way things work (spaceships, snakes, volcanoes). There is now good reason to believe that these differences in educational style are biologically programmed, reflecting innate neuroanatomical differences between the sexes.
Single-Sex Schools: A Look at the Evidence
n the past five years, several large studies have conclusively demonstrated that kids do better in single-sex schools. The Australian Council for Educational Research recently released the largest-ever comparison of single-sex and coeducational schools. Their analysis, which was based on six years of study of over 270,000 students, in fifty-three academic subjects, demonstrated that both boys and girls who were educated in single-sex classrooms scored on average 15 to 22 percentile ranks higher than did boys and girls in coeducational settings. According to the report, teenage boys and girls are "out of synch with each other because of differences in physiology and cognitive development."
The Australian study replicated the findings of an earlier British study. The British Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) examined results from eight hundred schools, single-sex and mixed, with students from all different backgrounds. OFSTED found that the superior performance of students in single-sex schools cannot be
accounted for by socioeconomic factors but appears instead to be a direct result of the single-sex environment. They also found that students in single-sex schools have a significantly more positive attitude toward learning. The findings of the OFSTED study are in accordance with an earlier study from Northern Ireland, which found that socioeconomic status does not account for the superior academic performance, and superior self-esteem, of boys and girls in single-sex schools.
The benefits of single-sex schools are not limited to improved academics. A number of studies have demonstrated that graduates of single-sex schools are more self-confident and have a more serious approach to academics.
The benefits of single-sex schools are not limited to improved academics. A number of studies have demonstrated that graduates of single-sex schools are more self-confident and have a more serious approach to academics. One Irish study, comparing girls at a single-sex high school to girls at a coed high school, found that the best predictor of self-esteem for girls at the coed high school was their opinion of their own personal appearance. If a girl at the coed school thought she was pretty, then she had high self-esteem; if not, not. Girls at the single-sex school were less concerned about personal appearance. Students at single-sex schools also appear to be more open to considering a wider range of subjects. In another study, girls at single-sex schools were more interested in math and science than were girls at a coed school. Likewise, boys at boys-only schools felt freer to pursue stereotypically "feminine" subjects such as music and art. Girls who graduate from girls-only high schools are six times more likely to major in math and science than are girls who graduate from coed high schools.
In 1998, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) published its own report on single-sex education. The press release that accompanied the study's publication was headlined: "Report Finds Separating by Sex Not the Solution to Gender Inequity in School." The press release listed five of the study's purported "research findings." All five "findings" were negative with regard to single-sex education. For instance, the first "finding" was that "there is no evidence in general that single-sex education works or is better for girls than coeducation." The "summary" of the report featured remarks by one participant "casting doubt on the value of conducting further studies of single-sex classes, given the little evidence of differential outcome for effectiveness, and the questionable legality of single-sex education."
The few people who actually read the report itself, rather than just the press release and the summary, were in for a surprise. The press release and the summary, it turned out, bore little resemblance to the report they purportedly described. Pamela Haag's essay, which opens the report itself, concludes that "published studies that use subject preferences and girls' attitudes toward math and science as indicators have concluded uniformly that single-sex environments have a positive effect for girls." "Single-sex schools work," we read in Cornelius Riordan's review later in the report. "They work for girls and boys, women and men, whites and non-whites. ... The effects of single-sex schools are greatest among black or Hispanic females from low socioeconomic homes." Riordan launches into what can only be described as a hymn of praise to single-sex schools: "Single-sex schools are places where students go primarily to learn; not to play [or to] meet their friends and have fun. Coeducational schools, except for those in affluent middle-class communities, are not at all about academics."
The Politics of Title IX
he Wall Street Journal acerbically pointed out the disparity between the report and the press release that accompanied it. "The Association tanked its own study," the Journal concluded. "One might reasonably wonder why the AAUW felt compelled to spin the news coverage against its own study. The report is a case history of how politics trumps policy nowadays in this country. ... For professional political partisans, among whom we'd include the AAUW's leadership and its staff, these [single-sex] schools are a potential threat."
It's hard to miss the irony. The same Title IX that was once considered a feminist triumph now stands as the major barrier to single-sex education for girls, despite research showing that girls benefit from a single-sex environment. The feminist community itself appears split, sometimes along racial lines, on the issue of how to respond to the growing tide of documentation in favor of single-sex education.
Nowhere has this tension within the feminist movement been more evident than in the fight over the Young Women's Leadership Academy of East Harlem. Shortly after this public girls-only school was established,
the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed a complaint with the federal government on the grounds that the school's existence violated Title IX. Anne Conners, president of NOW New York, invoked the language of Brown v. Board of Education when she declared that the school must be closed, because "separate but equal is not OK." Harlem women rallied to support the school, ridiculing NOW's interference as the meddling of middle-class white women in a situation they didn't understand. Maria Irizarry-Lopez, one of the leaders of a group of Hispanic women who helped to organize the school, said, "Personally, I don't think they have a right to oppose the school. They never addressed our needs, so why should they come down here and tell us we can't have this?"
It's hard to miss the irony. The same Title IX that was once considered a feminist triumph now stands as a major barrier to single-sex education for girls, despite research showing that girls benefit from a single-sex environment.
Meanwhile, the Young Women's Leadership Academy has grown from an initial enrollment of just fifty-five girls in one grade to over four hundred girls in grades 7 through 12. There are no entrance exams. Any student with a C average or better can apply. The school population, like the neighborhood it serves, is almost 100 percent black and Hispanic. The girls come from all across the academic spectrum, including some who were formerly in remedial classes. Nevertheless, in 2001, 100 percent of the girls passed the New York Regents examination in English; the average citywide was just 42 percent.
The Young Women's Leadership Academy graduated its first class in June 2001. All but one of the graduating seniors were accepted by a four-year college; the one exception was a girl who joined the Air Force. More than half of those going to college won full scholarships. Ninety percent of the girls going to college from that class are the first in their family to go to college. The second graduating class (June 2002) is sending every one of its graduates to a four-year college.
None of this impresses Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. He told the New York Daily News that "our position has not changed. We think the school is illegal. Our disappointment is that we filed our complaint 2_ years ago, and the inaction [by federal officials] has allowed this [enlargement of the school] to happen." Feminist orthodoxy remains unalterably opposed to the school. As Patricia Ireland, president of NOW, put it: "The Manhattan Institute and Ann Rubenstein [founders of the Young Women's Leadership Academy] can run a segregation academy if that is their choice. But they must do so without the validation of public money."
The first class valedictorian, Edriana Suarez, fought back tears as she spoke about the odds that the school has had to overcome just to remain open. "We are underdogs," she told her June 2001 graduating class. "There are people who don't expect us to win and don't want us to win. The only thing we can do about these people is prove them wrong. And that's exactly what we're doing today."
In 1998, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison offered an amendment legalizing single-sex education in public schools. Senator Hutchison is a conservative Republican. Not surprisingly, she was opposed by several liberal Democrats. Sen. Ted Kennedy denounced her proposal as "sinister" and "unconstitutional." Sen. Carol Mosely-Braun called it "frightening."
When Senator Hutchison offered the same amendment in June 2001, she was joined by an unlikely ally: Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York). "Public school choice should be expanded as broadly as possible," Senator Clinton said. "Certainly there should not be any obstacle to providing single-sex choice within the public school system. School districts should have the opportunity to spend federal educational funds on promoting single-sex opportunities so long as they are consistent with applicable law."
The success of the Young Woman's Leadership School appears to have been a major factor in Senator Clinton's decision to come out in support of single-sex public education. On the floor of the Senate, she praised the school as "one of the premier public schools for girls in our Nation" and added, "We could use more schools such as this." Senator Clinton recognized that the issue of single-sex education transcends the usual partisan divide.
It's a new era in American education. For the first time in thirty years, teachers and administrators are at liberty to offer single-sex education to students in public schools. For the first time in American history, an explicit legal provision now exists in American law, affirming that single-sex education has a role to play in American public schools. The door to real innovation has been opened. But the question remains: Will American educators be up to the challenge? Stay tuned.
Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., is a family physician and psychologist practicing in Montgomery County, Maryland. He is the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Single Sex Public Education [on the Web at www.SingleSexSchools.org]