Monday, December 10, 2007

Hot topic: single-sex education

After I had my son, Sam, I started to read everything on raising boys. I have a younger brother who has struggled through life, and I feared that my son would follow suit. I wanted to make sure that I started Sam on the right path. One of my favorite books was the best-seller Raising Cane: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, written by child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. In this book, Kindlon and Thompson identify the social and emotional challenges that boys encounter in school—and they address the benefits of all-boys schools. Last night, I re-read sections of the book and tracked down the following passage on page 48. It touches on why Kindlon and Thompson are advocates for boys schools.

"Boys benefit from the presence of male teachers and authority figures as role models of academic scholarship, professional commitment, moral as well as athletic leadership, and emotional literacy. The presence of men can have a tremendously calming effect on boys. When boys feel full acceptance—when they feel that their normal developmental skills and behavior are normal and that others perceive them that way—they engage more meaningfully in the learning experience."

After reading this book, I remember thinking that I would send Sam to an all-boys school such as Town or Cathedral. And so I decided to explore all-girls schools for Alice since she was the one who would be starting school first. Last year, two years before Alice would even start kindergarten, I toured Katherine Delmar Burke.

My tour of Burke was a year ago and so the details are fuzzy. I remember a beautiful campus, a new gym, tennis courts, and an amazing enthusiastic science teacher in the middle school. In fact, I think she's one of the best science teachers I've observed. She had the girls constructing chain reactions (a match would light a string on fire that would break and then a car would race down a ramp and fall into a bucket of water that would tip over...), and I thought it was so cool to see a woman teaching science. During the Q&A session, I recall someone asking why the school didn't introduce language at an earlier grade (I think they start in 5th or 6th grade). An answer was given about studies showing that language instruction at an early age is ineffective unless it's an immersion program. But what I remember most of all were lots and lots of girls. It was quite awesome to see so many girls of all ages working together in one place, but it was also overwhelming.


As Sam grew older, he developed an incredibly tight bond with his sister. When Sam fussed in his crib at night, Alice would crawl in with him and rub his back. When Alice was scared and couldn't sleep, Sam would reach his hand through his crib and grab Alice's hand. I can remember walking into their room once: they were asleep holding hands. These days, Alice and Sam attend the same small preschool where they're in the same class together. I don't think they play together all that much at school but I think they take great comfort in knowing the other one's there. At home, they're always engaged in "Baby" or "Kitty" or "Peaches in the Meadow," a game they've created that involves tearing all the covers off Mom and Dad's bed and jumping around. As the bond between the two grows tighter, I've realized that there's no way I'm sending them to different schools. I've entirely given up on my dream of sending Sam to an all-boys school. And so I didn't even consider any of the single-sex schools this year.

I'm sure many of you have lots of thoughtful things to say about single-sex education. Please share!


  1. This kind of thing has happened to me over and over again throughout my kids' childhoods: I think something sounds absolutely great in concept, but then when my kids are approaching that point in real life, it becomes clear that it's either unnecessary or has significant downsides.

    The attitude shift Kate describes about single-sex education mirrors what I've experienced over the years with my views on school uniforms and K-8 schools, for example. I wonder if that happens to most parents.

  2. I am not a big advocate of all boys schools, because I don't believe that boys are disadvantaged by society. In fact, I think that all boys' education can help perpetuate the gender imbalance in politics, wealth, the board room, etc. Although it may help individual boys, I think it has a detrimental impact on the world at large, perpetuating a sexist status quo. (Call me Susan Faludi.)

    That said, for similar reasons, I strongly support all-girls schools. Studies show that although girls have equal capability to boys, they are treated not as well in the classroom. Girls raise their hands more, but are called on less. They lose confidence in middle school years because of social pressure and unequal expectations. I think that there are many good reasons to educate girls separately, to give them an equal opportunity to boys in the world. That said, I'm not sure if these feminist arguments are the ones that most sway the Pacific Heights crowd to send their kids to Hamlin, Convent and Burke's. So it's a mixed bag, I suppose.

  3. Although I have not actually read the books or papers, in theory, single sex education seems like a great idea but I worry about whether or not the reality is a different story. I'd be interested in hearing from parents with children currently enrolled in single sex schools, particularly for girls and grades 6-8. Girls can be pretty cruel (esp in middle school) and I wonder if being in a single sex school exacerbates the negative aspects (cliques, gossip, catty behavior, etc.).

  4. it's funny...i've never thought about this before. i guess as a product of public schools myself and a secular person as well, it just never crossed my mind as an option (although i have, of course, heard about the research on single-sex ed over the years). at the end of the day, i wonder how much it really helps redress inequities to educate girls and boys separately when they still have to function in the real world, both as students and after their schooling ends...?

  5. Actually the general agreement among parents who've raised girls to that age is that third-grade girls are the very meanest - truly the meanest species of humanity. I had the idea that the U.S. Army could try out some regiments of third-grade girls, who would devastate the enemy with entirely verbal weapons -- "who said YOU could play?"

  6. Oh, that last Anonymous was Caroline. I changed computers and it seems to have wiped out my identity. Aieee!

  7. I went to all-girls schools, k-8. (Both Hamlin and Burkes, actually, but a long time ago.) The one thing I took away from the experience, besides a hatred of field hockey, was that no daughter of mine was ever going to attend an all-girls school. The cruelty, the cliques, the cattiness were absolutely unbelievable. In the thirty years since I graduated from KDB I've seen nothing like it.
    My daughter is in fifth grade at a public school and there's some icky girl stuff going on, but it seems to be tempered by the presence of boys. There may be academic up-sides to girls and boys being divided up, but I think the social benefits of gender diversity in the classroom vastly outweigh them.
    Having said all this, I know many women who are overcome by nostalgia for their years at the same schools I attended, so go figure.

  8. My kids go to a co-ed private school, but starting in 5th grade they separate out the kids by sexes for a very limited amount of time (1x/week for math class). My oldest is in 4th grade but my understanding is that the kids really like it.

    When we were looking at schools for our son I looked at some of the boys' schools. I really liked the way single sex education was implemented at Cathedral and thought that the boys there seemed esepcially well-engaged with what was going on in the classroom. I really didn't like the all-boys' atmosphere at Town. In my view, there are pros and cons to single sex education in geenral, and then there are the specifics of how each school manages the situation.

  9. What I've observed is that public or private, each class has its own identity. Sometimes it can be incredibly supportive, othertimes incredibly mean and intolerant.

    It can vary class by class within the same school. We took our kids out of a perfectly fine Catholic school in part because of the weirdness of my older daughter's class. The class ahead of her and the class behind her were lovely, it was just her class. Who knows why?

    You can do all the research you want, public v. private, coed v. single-sex, general v. immersion but in the end there's no way to predict how this unknown factor will play out until you get to the school.

    Of course, schools can and should do their best to create a supportive environment by preventing bullying, using programs like TRIBES, and just generally staying on top of school climate issues. But sometimes I think this "classness" can account for why one person can have such a terrific experience at a school, and another can experience the same school as a horrific nightmare.

  10. I agree with the last poster that local class-cohort culture is a random factor that you cannot plan for or control at all. Oh well.

    My older child's class is a very bonded group of friends. They are also creative and quirky and are well known among the teachers as a dynamic and bright cohort that questions the rules. My younger child's class is more diffuse and also quiet, with less tight friendships overall and seemingly less leadership shown by anyone to help cohere the group. I'm not aware of major teasing in either group, but my sense is the friendships are more developed in the older child's class (and have been for years). Same demographics, in many cases even the same families, are represented, and the same sequence of teachers.

    It seems to be a chemistry thing. I don't know how it works but I think it does cross private-parochial-public lines. Ours is co-ed public, for what it's worth.

  11. We looked at Burke's. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way, but my spouse loved it. To me it seemed like finishing school. I can't explain it.

  12. No school is perfect and pros and cons can be listed for each. Our son and daughter attend single sex schools in SF that I wont identify but are not hard to guess. We love both our schools. For my son a boys school was a perfect match. He was a real rough and tumble boys boy needing the specialization of a school that has seen them all. In kindergarten the school had PE twice a day that really ran them around and gentle dicipline the rest of the day. He had behavior problems in his coed preschool but thrived in a boys school environment.
    Our daughter on the other hand would have thrived in just about any school but happens to just loves it in her all girls environment. We love her uniform but that's another discussion. What a previous poster said about cliques at girls schools and no where else because it's 'tempered by boys' fails to make sense to me. My understanding is that bullying and cliques are tempered at all-girls schools since the class as a whole is closer/cohesive and very strong life-long friendships are made.

    The cons of our situation are two annual funds, capital campaigns, etc. Also twice the number of PA meetings, auction dinners, etc but I think some extroverted parents actually enjoy the additional social opportunities. There are also more logistical juggling with different drop offs and pickups.
    On the other hand we dont cross the bridge daily for MCDS/afterschool events and dont have to put up with the chronic underfunding of the public schools. We knew what we wanted/needed and didnt even apply to these schools.

  13. A friend whose precocious boy would have definitely been labeled a "problem" at a co-ed school has thrived at his all boys' school (too many questions, too much energy, too many ideas, pretty much too much everything.) Three recesses, lots of PE, and an overall attitude of "boys are okay" has really been great for him. I can see in a few years he would fit seamlessly back into a coed environment, but for the early grades I think his parents absolutely made the right choice.

  14. sort of related question -- where do "spirited" girls tend to do best? single-sex? private? public? i suppose it's hard to generalize like that. i sometimes worry that our daughter, who is delightful, but also impulsive and high-energy and has a strong personality (to put it mildly), will get labeled as problematic in school. we think about "redshirting" her because she is a young 5, and wonder if in another year she'll be more able to concentrate and a little more mellow ("impulse control" and sitting still through circle time are issues we're working on with her teachers at preschool). she's a bright kid, but sensitive and gets easily frustrated and tends to want lots of attention from her teachers. But perhaps all 4-year-olds are this way ...

  15. Re: intense cliques and girls schools. This was certainly my experience, over nine years at all-girls schools. There developed a very clear hierarchy with alpha girls (athletic, pretty, outgoing) at the top and a few pathetic souls at the bottom who were ruthlessly ostracized. I was always in the middle, nervously observing. I think there are cliques everywhere, but it's not as overwhelming in my daughter's co-ed classroom -- there's just more going on. The boys seem to break up the intense, crazy GIRLNESS of it all.
    Some people like that, of course. I would say a high-spirited, outgoing, athletic girl might love a girls school. A quiet, watchful kid maybe not so much.

  16. Speaking of Po Bronson from another thread, I was reading his blog (which plugs his new book) and took an online survey this morning that touches on some of the covered subjects... here's a fascinating tidbit on the subject of bullying...

    "In this question, we asked you to depict the traits of the majority of bullies. While there are some bullies who fit the stereotype of being antisocial outcasts, most of the bullying at school is done by the popular kids, and they do with verbal taunts and teases, not with physical intimidation. They do it to get more popular. The average kid is known by 60% of his classmates. The fastest way to increase that is to be aggressive and arrogant.

    Researchers have realized that harassing other kids is a very advanced social skill. Knowing who to pick on and what buttons to push requires an awareness many kids don’t have. So bullying is not the domain of the socially deviant – it’s really the province of the socially savvy. "

  17. hey Susan Faludi poster, We went through the private high school search last year at a private boys K-8 and I was stunned to hear the high school placement counselor telling all the parents, "Don't worry about getting into high school, the competition for boys is not that tough, at least compared to the girls. The girls tend to have their acts together such that the competition is very fierce." From a feminist standpoint, I was appalled. And I believe it doesn't serve the boys well either to make excuses for them.

  18. Do the high school insist on balancing their classes 50/50 M/F regardless of achievement? If so, I do find that inappropriate. The same standard of test scores, essays, etc., should be given to both boys and girls. I can't even believe the stuff this is arising in me! Since when are boys actually inferior to girls academically? And if so, then why do they rule 99.99 percent of the business and governmental world?

  19. It turns out that all boys schools are very important K - 8, and all girls schools are important 9 - 12.

    The reason is that boys are developmentally behind girls K-8, and are basically taught as defective girls. The style of teaching between genders at that age is very different, and in coed schools is biased heavily towards the more advanced girls, who can sit still and pay attention (and read sooner, etc etc).

    Once boys catch up around 9th grade, and girls become "aware" of boys, they become more introverted relatively and hence perhaps a single sex environment would be better for them.

    The current consensus despite the post about "boys [not] being disadvantaged by society" etc is that boys get short thrift in K-8 learning.

    I would highly recommend and all boys school. The tough decision is when you have both a boy and a girl and the logistics issue.