Boys Schools and Girls Schools Can Be Great Choices

This past weekend’s New York Times Sunday Dialogue took on the question of single gender education in piece titled How to Educate Boys. I recommend the full discussion if you haven’t read it. Rather than recount/summarize the arguments, I’ll stick with a response to it. I do include some highlights from The NYT below my thoughts.

Students at Ethel Walker School

Students at Ethel Walker School

Confessing my bias, upfront, I have personal interest in this conversation. I’m a graduate of an all boys boarding school that I attended 10th-12th grade. The single gender boarding environment liberated me from being more interested in the social scene of a 2500+ student suburban high school.

I never cease to be amazed at the the shrill absolutes that come from the anti-single gender school members of the conversation; blanket condemnation is malarkey.

The anti-single gender school arguments tend to run along two lines:

Students at Grand River Academy

Students at Grand River Academy

One, the world is coed; single gender schools aren’t coed; therefore, students in single gender schools aren’t learning skills necessary to functioning in the real world.

The second major criticism of single gender schools goes something like this: research shows that single gender education isn’t inherently superior to coed education.

Both are wrong, in that each fails to focus on what’s best for each individual student. The fact is that a boys school education may work for an individual boy and a girls school education may work for an individual girl. Neither single gender setting in inherently right or wrong; better or worse.

I’ll challenge the ‘single gender education isn’t inherently superior to coed education’ argument first. No one, not even proponents of single gender education, makes the argument that single gender education is the better, or the best, way to educate every student. If single gender schools were inherently superior, we’d see them everywhere (barring too much expense). We don’t see them everywhere because they’re not for everyone. They are an option/choice.

The ‘not the real world’ argument’s greatest flaw lies in it’s implicit assumption that kids are like adults; fully developed; ready and capable of living in the adult world. But, kids aren’t adults; they aren’t ready to tackle, or assume, real world adult issues.

We slow, and mitigate, kids’ worlds all the time to protect and aid in development. Single gender schools can work as mitigation tool giving students time, space, and safety to grow into solid adults.

Both of these two primary criticisms fail to address the primary advantage of school choice: what type of school, or school environment best fits this student?

For some students, maybe a boy’s boarding school fits best. For others a coed day school. For others, their neighborhood, or town, public school.

Set aside the blanket condemnations. Breathe. Take a moment and count yourself lucky if you’re able to explore and find the school that best fits your student- whatever type that may be.

Selected highlights from the NYT:

To the Editor:

Women outperform and outnumber men in postsecondary education, in part because the K-12 system does not provide boys with the same educational experience. It is geared for girls. Our academic system must bolster the experience for girls, but not at the expense of boys.

As we encourage girls to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), we must work equally hard to encourage boys to consider literature, journalism and communications. Boys are often pushed toward math and science, and receive inadequate social support. We need to recognize boys’ differences, and their social and developmental needs.

Gender inequality in postsecondary education is partly the product of a K-12 educational system that presses academic and social skills at an age when girls are typically more socially and physiologically ready than boys.

A modern educational system must do these things:

■ Decrease suspension rates for boys.
■ Use educational modes that reach boys.
■ Allow boys more physical activity.
■ Facilitate introspection and a sense of self-worth.
■ Provide more reading, writing and communication opportunities.
■ Develop single-sex schools.
■ Start boys at different ages, providing more free preschool education that prepares boys for the classroom.

When K-12 systems and our culture defer to the boys-will-be-boys notion, we facilitate and accept the willful blindness to a disturbing trend: Women outnumber men by more than 2.8 million in postsecondary education. The gender ratios have essentially flipped from the mid-1970s to today, with boys falling behind in postsecondary success. Disciplinary procedures, physiological differences and teaching practices create greater challenges for boys.

Our K-12 systems must recognize gender differences so all children develop a love of learning. Educators must advance gender equality for girls and boys.

Pleasanton, Calif.
The writer has taught at the university and secondary school levels and is the father of two boys.

…However, women who are the product of single-sex education are significantly more likely to study math and science, and in all-boys schools, young men tend to be less self-conscious about studying music, art or acting, and they are more open to sharing their feelings. A full and open discussion of the benefits of single-sex education should not be left out of a dialogue to help our boys and our girls on their way to postsecondary academic success.

Executive Director, International Boys School Coalition
 Bokeelia, Fla.

…We part with Mr. Kullman about single-sex schools. There is ample research that shows it is not an effective solution. We live in a coed world and school should reflect that reality. Boys and girls learn from each other. There are many things that we as parents and teachers can do to make school a more successful experience for boys. For starters, pay attention to the problem.

…Our position as early childhood educators is that the problems start very early and must be addressed beginning in pre-K. The focus must be on the development of positive social-emotional skills and learning about how to self-regulate one’s behavior. Without these essential skills, boys are not ready for academic learning. And pushing academics into early childhood is not the answer. All young children learn best through active play, and for boys, the opportunity to do so is critical to their engagement in learning.

We part with Mr. Kullman about single-sex schools. There is ample research that shows it is not an effective solution. We live in a coed world and school should reflect that reality. Boys and girls learn from each other. There are many things that we as parents and teachers can do to make school a more successful experience for boys. For starters, pay attention to the problem.

New York

Ms. Sprung and Ms. Froschl are co-directors of educational equity at FHI 360, a human development organization. Dr. Gropper is associate dean of academic affairs at Bank Street College of Education. They are the co-authors of Supporting Boys’ Learning: Strategies for Teacher Practice, Pre-K-Grade 3.

…Forget about the fuzzy notion that schools need to generate a love of learning for all students, regardless of gender. Instead, schools, parents and policy makers need to raise the bar of expectations, especially for boys. For example, the minimum grade point averages required for participation in sports, activities highly valued by boys in today’s society, are ridiculously low. Raise them!

It’s not that boys can’t meet the educational challenges as well as girls. History and the experience of male students in other countries and cultures have shown that they can. If you want gender equality, “raise” the boys as well as the girls.

Arlington Heights, Ill.

…As the father of two boys, I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Kullman. Our education system is failing our young men, and the statistics Mr. Kullman shares bear that out in stark terms.

Boys are different from girls. They learn differently and need physical activity with hands-on oriented methods, but the focus over the past 40 years has been to make the education system more suited to girls, with predictable (and in important ways, commendable) results. Our boys and young men deserve an education system designed to give them the tools needed to succeed and contribute, not one that belittles, suspends and drugs them for being unable to sit still and listen like the girls.

Nevada City, Calif.

As we recognize the existence of gender differences, it is equally critical that we also recognize individual differences. While there are certainly traits that are much more common in one gender or the other, there are also boys who exhibit traits typical of girls, girls who exhibit traits typical of boys, and people of both genders who don’t necessarily fit the stereotypes of either. Our approach to education needs to meet all of these diverse needs.

As tempting as it may be to address gender differences through single-sex schools, this is not the answer….
Decisions about the best educational programs for a student should be based not on what is statistically likely to work based on gender but rather on actual firsthand experience with each student as an individual.

New York

  • For a few understudies, possibly a kid’s life experience school fits best. For others a coed day school. For others, their neighborhood, or town, open school.Set aside the sweeping judgments. Relax. Pause a minute and check yourself fortunate in case you’re ready to investigate ..

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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