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Girls and boys thrive in separate classrooms

By Sally Reed
November 23, 2008
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THERE CAN be no question anymore: Evidence over dec ades demonstrates that single-sex education is a valid and compelling option.

In 2001, the US Department of Education acted on independent findings to sanction single-sex education as a good choice for some students. Here at the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, we are thrilled that our commitment to providing a single-sex choice within both public and private schools has sparked lively debate in Massachusetts.

Certainly, girls and boys should have the chance to attend single-sex schools whose environments are tailored to their developmental and cognitive needs, offering rich opportunities for both to shine in ways that coeducation, with all its possibilities, has not.

We draw on research from studies conducted two and three decades ago. In the 1990s, an important national study of secondary schools and colleges made "The Case for Single-Sex Schools" by showing that "single-sex schools for females provide a greater opportunity for educational attainment as measured by standardized tests, curriculum and course placement, leadership behavior, number of years of formal education and occupational achievement."

In other words, girls thrive when their learning style is valued. They are more engaged, more willing to persevere, and enjoy greater satisfaction and success in the classroom, on the playing field, and in the lab. Not to mention at the computer and in front of the class.

Some think that girls' schools leave young women ill-equipped to compete against their male counterparts. Competing with boys is not the point. Girls' schools see their graduates standing side-by-side with men of high achievement. An independent study by the Goodman Research Group, commissioned by the National Coalition of Girls' Schools in 2005, found that more than 80 percent of the 4,200 girls' school graduates surveyed said they were better prepared than their coed school peers to succeed in college.

Others may argue that single-sex educational settings are unnatural, passé, and counter-intuitive. That makes sense from a limited perspective. It made sense, too, that the sun revolved around the earth, until Copernicus proved otherwise. We now have evidence from the more than 450 schools (154 public and 300 independent) offering same-sex education around the country. Girls and boys in such settings are more expressive, creative, and adventurous in their learning. Liberated from gender stereotyping, more girls pursue studies (and later careers) in math, science, and technology; with less to prove, boys tend to collaborate rather than clobber one another, and to get more involved in art, music, and drama.

At a time when we are conscious of the need to prepare succeeding generations to take active, innovative roles in a complex world, these reports have particular power. We have graduated into a world that demands competence and courage from all children. To remain competitive as a nation we need as many young women as men stepping into careers in engineering, information technology, math, and science. We cannot afford to lag behind developing nations. Single-gender classrooms and schools have a well-known track record for fostering such choices.

How can we turn a blind eye, knowing what we do about the benefits of single-sex classrooms? Boston has always been the hub of the educational universe in America. It's time to think progressively, and, to borrow a phrase from Thoreau, advance confidently in the direction of our dreams.

Sally Reed is director of communications at the National Coalition of Girls' Schools.

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