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Report claims separating students by sex offers no answer to gender inequity

Thursday, March 12, 1998

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Afsanah Nickzad, a student at Oakland Catholic High School, isn't the type to fall off her chair to get a teacher's attention.

An honors chemistry class for sophomores at Oakland Catholic High School, one of the region's all-girls schools.(Tony Tye Post-Gazette)

But in her view, that's practically what it took to get called on first during her years at St. Bede School, a coeducational Catholic elementary school in Point Breeze. Boys shouted out answers and "fell all over themselves to get called on first," Nickzad said, which is why the soft-spoken 17-year-old senior opted four years ago to attend Oakland Catholic, a girls high school.

"It's helped me a lot," she said yesterday. "It's given me a lot more confidence in subjects that aren't my strongest, like math and science. I've noticed that Oakland Catholic creates very assertive girls."

So she sounded surprised to learn that a report issued today by a national women's education group claims just the opposite: that separating schools and classes by sex "is not the solution to gender inequity in school."

The report, by the American Association of University Women, examined most of the research to date on sex-segregated education, and found both the research and the education wanting.

While some all-girl educational programs produce positive results "for some students in some settings," including math and science, "there is no significant improvement in girls' achievement" overall, the report stated.

Not only that, the report noted, "there is no escape from sexism in single-sex schools and classes; and single-sex classes in particular disrupt the coeducational public school environment."

For public school officials who would turn to single-sex programs as a panacea, the AAUW's report seemed clearly intended as a go-slow signal.

"The future of public education in the United States is shaped by the education reform efforts of today," said Janice Weinman, executive director of AAUW. "While we can draw lessons from single-sex educational experiments, we must continue to improve education so that all students benefit."

Public interest in single-sex programs may have been encouraged, intentionally or not, by the AAUW's last major public foray on this issue: a 1992 report, "How Schools Shortchange Women," which found that adolescent girls were being subjected to discrimination in the classroom -- from teachers, in textbooks and by male classmates. Girls lagged in math and science scores, and were increasingly subjected to sexual harassment and biased tests, the report said.

In fact, throughout much of this decade, the AAUW has been in the forefront of the debate over gender inequity in public schools, beginning in 1991, when it issued a report on girls' self-esteem. Citing the work of Harvard researcher Carol Gilligan and others, it noted that girls around the ages of 11 or 12 suffer a startling drop in self-confidence and academic achievement.

The AAUW's 1992 report was widely quoted as a justification for trying girls-only academic programs. And, in fact, the report suggested at one point that girls often learn better in single-sex environments, suggesting the establishment of all-girl groups within coeducational classes.

But that report "by no means endorsed single-sex education, and I don't think this is a backtracking from that," said Pamela Haag, a researcher who reviewed the literature for the AAUW's latest report.

Educators at same-sex schools, most of them girls private and Catholic schools, appeared surprised and dismayed by the AAUW's new report. They noted that the research findings could also be interpreted positively for girls schools, since the studies found either no difference or some improvement.

The AAUW is "playing a very smart game," said Meg Moulton, president of the National Coalition of Girls Schools. "They have an agenda, and that agenda is the public schools.

"They're worried that more resources are going into single-sex programs at the expense of the public school system at large. They know they don't have the studies of students in those settings, so they're relying on private school research, which samples a very different population. It's comparing apples and oranges."

At one point, the report quoted research from the National Women's Law Center, which noted that "when the design of single-sex schools or programs is premised on fixed notions about what women as a group are like or what women as a group are capable of, it tends to reinforce limiting stereotypes that create barriers to women's advancement."

"That contradicts our entire experience," said Madeline Vincunas, principal of Oakland Catholic. "If we have fixed notions, it's about religious beliefs. But in terms of what a woman should become, we leave that open to our young women to decide for themselves."

The AAUW's report comes at a time when some single-sex experiments in public schools are coming under fire from feminists, civil rights and civil liberties groups. Despite evidence of rising test scores, these groups claim the schools merely perpetuate sex stereotypes and violate federal anti-discrimination laws.

As U.S. schools continue to grope with problems of low achievement, violence, sexism and racial tension, "the emergence of single-sex education has been regarded by some as a rare glimmer of hope, a promise of a way out," the report said. "Buoyed by good press and wide public interest, single-sex classes and even some single-sex schools are cropping up with increasing frequency, testing the limits of social policy and anti-discrimination laws."

In fact, the news media -- and some educators -- have misinterpreted the AAUW's earlier report, said Haag.

"The reason we decided to look at the research again was because the debate since 1992 has gotten a little caricatured and we wanted to make it a little more complex. There was this tendency to generalize about the research, when it's actually very difficult to say that single sex education for girls is beneficial."

While Haag conceded that single sex education has some positive effects, her organization is concerned mainly with how all students achieve in public schools, she said.

"There is a better attitude toward math and science, and it is clear girls prefer single sex classrooms, but we don't want to see those benefits not being extended to coed classes. If you're interested in educational equity, you have to be concerned that you don't have unequal outcomes by gender."

Not only that, added Patricia Campbell, whose research is also quoted in the AAUW's report, it's difficult to tell how much improved academic achievement is due to segregating the sexes or to smaller classes, more focused curriculum or more committed teachers.

"Why are we just looking at separating girls and boys as the answer, as opposed to looking at trying different (teaching approaches)? Is it too hard to deal with the system as a whole, to get girls and boys to work together, to respect each other?"

Still, educators in girls schools countered that gender does make a difference in the classroom "comfort level" for many girls.

"There are reams of data that support that fact that some time in the life of a girl, a single-sex experience is extremely important for reasons of self-esteem," added Agnes Underwood, head of National Cathedral School in Washington.

"Every public school that's tried a gender-separate situation has seen their test scores rise dramatically, and girls don't want to go back," added Arlene Hogan, a former National Coalition of Girls Schools president and now head of a California private girls school.

While Hogan said that she agreed with some of the report's findings -- a call for small classes and schools, equitable teaching practices and focused academic curriculum for both boys and girls -- she suspects that the AAUW's report is merely an attempt to moderate its earlier position under pressure from feminist groups.

"It's throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We're trying to be fair to everyone, but we've never been fair to girls. They're saying the research is not clear that girls thrive in these settings? Frankly, when you're in the trenches with this, this is not a debatable issue," she said.

While the number of schools belonging to the National Coalition of Girls Schools has dropped in 10 years, enrollment in the association's member schools overall has gone up 15.4 percent since 1991, said Moulton, the group's president.

And last year Gov. Pete Wilson of California pushed through legislation providing $500,000 for all-girl and all-boy public schools. Six such schools are in the process of being created.

But efforts to duplicate that elsewhere have met with some opposition.

In New York last year, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Civil Rights Coalition and the National Organization for Women sued to shut down an all-girls school in East Harlem, arguing that it violated Title 9, which prohibits federal money from going to schools that discriminate on the basis of sex.

And a New Jersey middle school principal was forced to halt a two-year experiment with single-sex classes, despite evidence of rising test scores, by state officials leery of violating anti-discrimination laws.

While other single-sex schools are being established in public school districts in Texas, Virginia and other states, and while some, such as the Philadelphia High School for Girls, have been in existence for years, they are usually permitted only if similar programs exist for boys. But no program similar to the Young Women's Leadership School in East Harlem is being planned for boys; rather, it's being described as an affirmative action remedy for discriminatory practices against girls, said New York city's school chancellor, Rudy Crew.

Moulton said the nation should be open to all-girls schools as one approach to academic excellence.

"I worry about the options being discounted when we, as a nation, are lagging behind so many other nations in academic standards. Single sex schools are just one option," said Moulton. "This is a not a one-size-shoe fits all policy."

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