Single-sex education: what’s old is new again

Education leaders are continuously on the lookout for a new method or technique to improve academic performance, or a way to create better schools. As The 74 reports, one of the latest school models shows that what’s old is new again: single-sex education.

“In the past two years, new single-sex charter middle schools have opened in Denver, Los Angeles, and El Paso, Texas. School leaders say having only girls or only boys makes their school communities feel like families, increases student confidence, and provides a safe place for students to develop their identities,” according to the news site.

Nick Jackson, founder of The Boys School of Denver, said he believes the single-sex environment benefits both genders because students are less concerned about being judged, and therefore more willing to speak up to build a community with their classmates.

“At a time in education where everybody’s looking for this magic silver bullet of what works and the pendulum is swinging back and forth, what we know works in education is really simple, right? It’s a simple solution to a complicated problem—it’s creating relationships, it’s establishing a sense of belonging. What these boys need more than anything else is, quite simply, love,” he said.

The Boys School of Denver, which launched this year with 90 6th-graders, is predicated on building a brotherhood where students can feel like they part of something bigger, Jackson said.

“It’s the missing ingredient in a lot of education. Once these boys feel (love), they feel like they are part of this team, this brotherhood, there’s no telling what they can accomplish,” he told The 74. “And that’s really what we try to do—we try to keep it simple that way. And the single-gender piece helps that: We can create that brotherhood—all the students are already coming in with one thing in common.”

The Denver school is part of a larger GALS charter school network, which also runs an all-girls middle school in Los Angeles called GALS LA. Carrie Wagner, executive director of GALS LA, said she attended an all-girls high school and can attest to the benefits of the single-sex education environment.

“I just got my voice at a very young age, and I never lost it,” she said.

Without the influence of boys, girls at GALS LA, which opened in 2016, often comment about how they can better express themselves and stand up to others at the school, Wagner said.

“There’s this whole idea of being ‘mean girl.’ There can be the mean-girl thing or there can be this amazing bond of sisterhood,” Wagner said, adding that “parents come up to me in tears” because they’re grateful for the positive environment at GALS LA.

“The feedback’s been amazing,” she said.

Single-sex education could also fill the bill of creating what researchers of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture refer to as a “thick culture.”

As Dr. Ashley Berner of the Johns Hopkins School of Education has said, “A strong school culture means something very different from a friendly school, or a high-achieving school, or a school with few discipline problems. Rather, it means a school where the moral vocabulary, rituals, discipline, academic expectations, and relationships align. Such a school can define its mission, hire faculty, and attract students and parents based upon a shared vision.”

Whether or not single-sex schools can deliver on their educational promises remains to be seen.

Moreover, critics see these schools as perpetuating gender stereotypes and inequities.

Nevertheless, it’s an indication of the possibilities available to public schools, both district and charter, as they seek to build a unique and thick culture that will form the intellectual and moral virtues of their students.

Ripley’s international investigation of boys’ motivation reveals need for character focus

There’s a global phenomenon in education that’s especially obvious in Middle Eastern countries—girls are outperforming boys in school and pursuing educational opportunities their male classmates are not.

Amanda Ripley recently traveled to Jordan to investigate the problem through a reporting fellowship program, and she found the issue among boys boils down to a lack of motivation and disconnect with school, rather than intellect. Incorporating character formation in schools can address students’ motivation challenges by helping them keep the purpose of their education in mind.

Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way and senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, published an in-depth report about her trip, research, and interviews with students in The Atlantic last month.

Ripley explained that she wanted to understand why girls in the Middle East do better in school, despite far fewer, lower-paying employment opportunities than those available to men. But she also noted that the trend isn’t an isolated problem.

“It’s part of a pattern that is creeping across the globe: Wherever girls have access to school, they seem to eventually do better than boys,” Ripley wrote. “In 2015, teenage girls outperformed boys on a sophisticated reading test in 69 countries—every place in which the test was administered.”

In the U.S., “girls are more likely to take Advanced Placement tests, to graduate from high school, and to go to college, and women continue their education over a year longer than men,” she wrote.

Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in the United Arab Emirates, told Ripley she thinks boys, particularly low-income boys, are disengaging from school.

“If you give girls a quality education, they will mostly run with it and do amazing things,” said Ridge, who studies gender education issues.

“These boys struggle to find a connection between school and life,” she said, “and school is increasingly seen as a waste of time.”

Ripley visited several schools in Jordan, where students are segregated by gender and taught by educators of their same sex. Some students and parents claimed girls have less freedom in Middle Eastern society, so they stay home and study more, while boys play a lot of video games and roam the streets.

Others claimed boys and girls are equally dedicated to school, but boys’ schools are much less inspiring, violent places, in part because most men don’t want to be teachers and schools struggle to find quality educators.

Still others claimed men in Middle Eastern societies have a much easier time gaining employment, and therefore do not need to study as hard in school as girls to land a good job.

Ripley found credence to several of the claims, and she compared what she learned in Jordan to educational achievement in the United States, both in coeducational and single-gender settings. She also spoke with psychologists and other experts.

What she realized is lot of factors play into the issue in both the Middle East and the U.S., but it seems to boil down to one word: motivation.

Ripley writes:

Motivation is the dark matter of education. It’s everywhere but impossible to see. Motivation helps explain why some countries get impressive education results despite child poverty and lackluster teaching, while others get mediocre results despite universal health care and free iPads. When kids believe in school, as any teacher will tell you, everything gets easier. So it’s crucial to understand the motivation to learn and how it works in the lives of real boys and girls. Because the slow slipping away of boys’ interest in education represents a profound failure of schools and society. And the implications are universally terrible. All over the world, poorly educated men are more likely to be unemployed, to have physical- and mental-health problems, to commit acts of violence against their families, and to go to prison. They are less likely to marry but quite likely to father children.

And that’s exactly what seems to be happening in many Middle Eastern public schools. Elements have conspired to create an education system that isn’t working well for anyone—but especially not for boys. And it all comes back to that ethereal dark matter: “The issue is not about intellect; it’s about motivation,” Oman’s education undersecretary Hamood Khalfan Al-Harthi says, echoing the kids I spoke to who dismissed notions of girls as naturally more studious. The problem is, motivation is shaped by parents, teachers, and the culture at large. As Osman’s study noted, Omani boys do not feel like their teachers care about them, and boys are much more likely to report corporal punishment occurring at school. That’s not a motivational setting.

In the American context, one common solution to address cratering motivation is to increase “engagement,” often through career and technical education, vocational education, and now, personalized learning.

“There are so many moments in vocational education,” wrote Mike Rose in The Hedgehog Review, “when values, ethical questions, and connections of self to tradition and community emerge naturally, ripe for thoughtful consideration.”

Research-based resources from the Jubilee Center help educators work with students to learn about the importance of character in certain professions and of understanding what a flourishing life is, which helps both boys and girls to keep the big-picture goals of their daily actions in mind, and gives them something to learn for and to live for.