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Single-Sex Schools Are Sexy Once Again

Often thought of as an anachronism, single-sex schools are undergoing a reevaluation by reformers who belatedly realize their potential for improving academic achievement. Whether they will find a serious place in the menu of options open to parents largely depends on how well the issues surrounding them are understood.

It was only in the late 19th century that public schools in this country became coeducational. Prior to that time, formal education took place in single-sex schools. Girls were most likely to be educated at home, if indeed they were educated at all. Single-sex schools that persisted thereafter were independent or church-affiliated.

The passage of Title IX legislation in 1972 was a watershed, making it illegal to establish single-sex classes or schools except in unusual circumstances. The thinking was that segregating students by sex was tantamount to segregating students by race or class.

The invidious argument aside, there are arguments that warrant serious consideration. Supporters assert that single-sex schools reduce the distractions that come with adolescence, encourage girls to take courses they often avoid, and allow instruction to be geared specifically to gender differences.

As intuitively appealing as these claims are, they are not widely supported by research. In fact, of the approximately 2,221 quantitative studies on the subject, only 40 passed muster with the American Institutes for Research because the bulk failed to control for significant variables such as socioeconomic factors.

This does not mean that single-sex schools don't produce important outcomes. But it does mean that parents need to make a decision with their eyes wide open, rather than on unexamined assumptions. This is particularly the case because in 2004 the Education Department said that single-sex schools do not have to provide any rationale or conduct periodic reviews.

Recognizing changing parental demand, the Education Department in late 2006 amended Title IX to grant public schools the right to offer single-sex classes as long as enrollment is voluntary. It also permitted districts to establish single-sex schools if they offered a "substantially equal" co-ed school.

According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, there are about 520 public schools offering at least some single-sex classes. For parents who can't afford the cost of private or religious schools, the growth is encouraging. But many parents want more single-sex schools to be created. At present, there are approximately 100 such stand-alone schools.

It's hard to know if single-sex schools that post impressive academic achievement and high graduation rates do so because of other factors. Whenever parents exercise school choice, it's a sign that they are involved in their children's education. Studies over the years have consistently shown that this factor plays a powerful role in student achievement. As a result, the benefits of single-sex schools are not necessarily due to gender segregation.

As the popularity of single-sex schools increases, it's likely that a constitutional challenge will emerge based on whether boys and girls can be offered equal opportunities for learning when they are separated. This separate- but -equal argument formed the basis of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

But there's one major difference. If school districts can demonstrate that single-sex education results in superior learning, particularly for blacks and Hispanics, they stand a good chance of prevailing. That's because the academic achievement gap between racial groups is seen as the new civil rights issue.

Above all else, however, parents should have the right to choose any school they believe best meets the needs and interests of their children. Single-sex education is not for every child. Nevertheless, let's allow parents alone to make that judgment.

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