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Is Single Sex Education Still Useful? The New York Times Wants to Know

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Erin Kelly

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Students 13 and older are invited to comment on the NYT Learning Network blog. #GOSEM!

Are all-boys or all-girls schools still useful? What are their benefits? With the emergence of new ideas about the fluidity of gender identity, do they even still make sense?

For example, what happens if a transgender student applies to a single-sex school, or if an enrolled student transitions?

In “Old Tactic Gets New Use: Public Schools Separate Girls and Boys,” Motoko Rich provides some context about the educational role of these schools:

Single-sex education, common in the United States until the 19th century, when it fell into deep disfavor except in private or parochial schools, is on the rise again in public schools as educators seek ways to improve academic performance, especially among the poor. Here at Charles Drew Elementary School outside Fort Lauderdale, about a quarter of the classes are segregated by sex on the theory that differences between boys and girls can affect how they learn and behave.

… The theory is generally held in low regard by social scientists. But Ms. Flowers notes that after the school, where nearly all students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, started offering the classes two years ago, its state rating went from a D to a C. Similar improvements have been repeated in a number of other places, causing single-sex classes to spread to other public school districts, including in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.

But questions about the mission of single-sex education have become especially relevant at women’s colleges in recent years thanks to an evolving understanding of gender identity. In a 2014 Op-Ed, “Who Are Women’s Colleges For?”, Kiera Feldman writes:

But today, women’s colleges are at a crossroads their founders could never have foreseen, struggling to reconcile their mission with a growing societal shift on how gender itself is defined. A handful of applications from transgender women have rattled school administrators over the past year, giving rise to anxious meetings and campus demonstrations. On April 29, the Department of Education issued new guidance: Transgender students are protected from discrimination under Title IX.

And in another 2014 piece, “When Women Become Men at Wellesley,” Ruth Padawer introduces us to Timothy Boatwright, who was raised a girl and checked “female” when he applied, but introduced himself at college as “masculine-of-center genderqueer.” He asked everyone at Wellesley to use male pronouns and the name Timothy, which he’d chosen for himself. Ms. Padawer writes:

Some two dozen other matriculating students at Wellesley don’t identify as women. Of those, a half-dozen or so were trans men, people born female who identified as men, some of whom had begun taking testosterone to change their bodies. The rest said they were transgender or genderqueer, rejecting the idea of gender entirely or identifying somewhere between female and male; many, like Timothy, called themselves transmasculine. Though his gender identity differed from that of most of his classmates, he generally felt comfortable at his new school.

Students: Read these articles, then tell us:

— What do you think are the benefits of single-sex education? What do you think are the drawbacks? Do you think students learn better in single-sex environments?

— Do you think single-sex institutions should still exist now that new ideas and research about gender identity are flourishing? Why or why not?

— If so, how do you think they should review applications from transgender people? What do you think should happen if someone in a single-sex school transitions while enrolled?

— Have you ever attended an all-girls or all-boys school, camp or club of some kind? What did you think of the experience?

— If you’ve never attended a single-sex school or camp, would you like to? Why or why not?

— What else, if anything, would you like to say about this topic?

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Is Single Sex Education Still Useful? The New York Times Wants to Know