By Elizabeth Zwerling
Sunday, June 3, 2001
Public schools are experimenting with single-sex education on a small scale, but the nation's biggest pilot project in California has shut down. A study found some benefits to girls and boys but said the schools failed to address gender equity.
LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)--Gender stereotyping, harassment and other problems common in co-educational schools do not necessarily disappear in single-sex schools, according to a major California study of the nation's largest experiment in public single-sex education.
The 12 schools, all but two of them closed, were not particularly successful in empowering students, breaking down stereotypes and improving academic performance, according to the private study conducted by three women university researchers.
The State of California did not evaluate the schools and only appropriated $500,000 for a schools' first two years of operation, expecting the schools thereafter to close or become self-sufficient. Most lacked supportive constituencies and they closed last year.
"Public, single-gender academies were not sustainable under California's policy framework," the report concluded.
"I was surprised. I went in imagining innovative, empowering environments, which paid attention to gender," said researcher Amanda Datnow of the University of Toronto, who conducted the study with Lea Hubbard of the University of California at San Diego and Elisabeth Woody of the University of California at Berkeley.
"But it turned out to be like a lot of school reform--gender equity is not the number-one priority."
The three-year study was conducted from 1998 to 2000, and more than 300 middle- and high-school students, educators and parents were interviewed in six districts, each with a separate girls' and boys' academy--12 schools in all, some on the same campus. Only one, the San Francisco 49'ers Academy in East Palo Alto, is still open to both girls and boys. It was operating as a boys school before the pilot project, added a girls' component and continued operation. The others were located in San Francisco, Stockton, San Jose and Dorris in Northern California and in Fountain Valley in Orange County in Southern California.
Numerous problems made the single-sex schools for girls and boys less than empowering and educationally effective, according to the study, "Is Single Gender Schooling Viable in the Public Sector? Lessons From California's Pilot Project." It was funded by the Ford Foundation and the Spencer Foundation and released May 23.
Two major problems were the lack of a gender equity-driven agenda and the overriding goal of helping primarily at-risk, low-achieving students instead of addressing gender inequities and empowering all students, the study said.
Other problems included short time-lines; lack of planning, resources and qualified teachers; lack of proper student recruitment and advertising to communities and the reliance on the use of some coeducational spaces, which were distracting and detrimental to equity-building.
The study identified some benefits to both girls and boys: The single-sex setting in some cases eliminated social distractions and allowed for better concentration on academics and open discussion about dating and pregnancy.
But these benefits were undermined because gender equity often was not addressed in the classrooms, gender stereotypes were often reinforced and in some cases stereotypical behaviors were worsened, according to the report.
"Single-gender, public academies need to guard against becoming a new form of tracking or resegregation," it said. "Segregation might lead to a safe or comfortable space for some populations, but they clearly create tensions for race and gender equity."
The academic success of both girls and boys was influenced more by small classes, strong curricula, dedicated teachers and equitable teaching practices than by single-sex settings, the researchers said. This finding reinforced those of a 1998 study by the American Association of University Women that concluded that separating the sexes does not necessarily improve the quality of education for girls.
For single-sex schooling to be successful at empowering both girls and boys, the school must be driven by an agenda of gender-equitable education, the study said.
"In addition to promoting self-esteem, gender identity, and enhanced achievement, the purpose of single-gender education should include challenging societal assumptions about gender," the report concluded.
While separating boys and girls solved some educational problems at some of the schools, it also created others the researchers did not expect. The relative success of each of the six programs had much to do with the preparedness of its educators and commitment of its students, which varied widely among the schools, the researchers found.
Former California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican proponent of school choice and funding alternative programs, initially envisioned specialized academies, with all-male programs for at-risk boys and all-female schools that focused on math and science. But because of Title IX, the federal law requiring gender equity in public education, the pairs of schools had identical curricula.
State and federal laws requiring gender equity are one reason there are very few single-gender public school programs, said Pamela Haag, director of research for the American Association of University Women's educational foundation. It is difficult for a school to meet the distinct social and educational needs of boys and girls while still complying with gender equity laws, she said.
The American Association of University Women did a study on single-sex schooling in 1998, which yielded results similar to those of the California study. That survey focused on girls and also concluded that simply separating boys and girls does not improve the quality of education.
"Separation by sex doesn't carry the day," Haag said, adding that creating a good school where students are successful requires much more.
"The hard work is creating a curriculum that appeals to boys and girls, encouraging innovative teaching. Single-sex schools with innovative teaching and a good curriculum will serve girls and boys well," she said.
The association's study, which compared various research on single-sex education across the country, found that some girls preferred the single-sex setting for social reasons or because they felt safer.
"But that is more of a sign of what is going on in today's coed public school classrooms," Haag said.
Public schools in some 15 states are experimenting with single-sex education on a small scale, most often in separate math and science classes for girls, as well as after-school math workshops for girls and reading clubs for boys.
The California pilot program, however, had little support from the state legislature after Gov. Wilson left office in 1998.
And Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction, said it is difficult to create truly equal single-sex programs.
As for the project overall, "a few teachers were excellent and passionate about it," said Datnow of the University of Toronto. And faced with competing interests, even many of its supporters lost interest in the end.
"Policies for single-gender public schooling need to be more carefully crafted and provide an infrastructure of support," the report concluded. "The policy for single-gender public schooling in California could have better enabled the successful implementation of single-gender academies."
Most important, it said, the enabling legislation should have provided for staff to receive state-sponsored staff development assistance geared toward gender-equitable practices. Teachers need training and administrative support to address critical issues like gender and racial bias, harassment, sexuality and homophobia, the report said.
Elizabeth Zwerling is a journalist based in Southern California, specializing in education, business and women's issues.
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