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Globe Editorial

Give single-sex schools a try

November 16, 2008
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BOSTON'S high dropout rate and its racial, gender, and ethnic achievement gaps are strong arguments for different education approaches that have shown promise elsewhere. That is why it was encouraging when Superintendent of Schools Carol Johnson proposed single-sex schools for boys and girls in her reorganization plan. Unfortunately, two state laws banning the practice stand in the way. The Legislature should repeal them to allow Boston and other districts to see if single-sex schools can help students learn better.

The notion is far from revolutionary. Private all-boys and all-girls schools have long praised the single-sex environment as beneficial for many students. Girls feel safer and get a chance to shine in leadership roles that boys often monopolize in coed schools; boys are less tempted to engage in attention-getting, disruptive behavior.

In the past 12 years, US cities and towns have established no fewer than 80 public single-sex schools. According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, single-sex classes within coed schools have jumped from three in 1995 to more than 300 now. In other districts where Johnson has worked, she has seen their appeal to both students and parents.

No one is claiming that single-sex schools are a silver bullet for the many problems of urban schools. Providing solid evidence of their advantages is difficult, in part because the single-sex environment is just one of many variables affecting students' performance. Critics say that the single-sex schools with high achievement scores and high graduation rates often benefit from motivated students, involved parents, and highly skilled teachers - not necessarily from the fact their students are all boys or all girls. But that just begs the question. Perhaps the single-sex environment helps to bring out those qualities.

In 2006, the US Department of Education amended its Title IX regulations to allow single-sex opportunities as long as enrollment is voluntary and there is a substantially equal school for students of the other gender. Under that rule, Johnson's original plan to have an all-boys school focus on preparing police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians in grades 6 through 12, while the girls school would be a "leadership" academy, could be a non-starter, even if state law changes. And correctly so: Girls should have the same opportunity as boys to train for those public service positions.

But Johnson is right to want to explore the option of single-sex schools. She is joined by the state's secretary of education, Paul Reville. Between them, they should ensure that repeal of the state laws banning single-sex public schools gets fair consideration.

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