I used to be a believer in single-sex education, but my experiences as a teacher and administrator have changed that mindset.
My first high school teaching experience was at an all-girls independent (Catholic) high school in Cincinnati. It was a wonderful experience for me as a teacher; I had great students in my classes who were actively involved, felt free to speak up and develop their voice, and free from the distractions of, well, boys . . . or so I thought. As great as my experience was, it was limiting. I then made the move to Cincinnati Country Day School, a co-educational independent school in the suburbs of Cincinnati. My eyes were opened to the great value of educating boys and girls (and Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews; students with wide-ranging skin colors and racial experiences; wide-ranging socio-economic backgrounds and experiences, and the like) together. Much of what I thought made sense about single-sex education came crashing down. I experienced boys having to learn how best to interact with girls and vice-versa. Girls at CCDS had developed voices as strong and independent as the girls I’d taught at the single-sex school, if not better, becuase they had the very real experience of having boys in the audience. Boys, too, were learning about changing gender roles and about making contributions that weren’t traditionally masculine. My eyes were (re)opened to the value of co-education.
Famed educational philosopher and pragmatist John Dewey advocated for hands-on learning by doing. For Dewey, learning wasn’t something to be isolated from the real-world experiences students would inevitably have; it was critical for him that students experience the real world as part of the learning process, both on and off campus. He famously writes that, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” We face critical challenges in our world today that stem from our very troubling inability to empathize with one another, to work hard to imagine how someone else experiences the world and to respect and honor those differences. A key advantage Ranney School offers students in the region is an atmosphere in which variant forms of diversity provide a wide-ranging set of experiences that are brought to the table in each and every classroom. At Ranney, we have increased our financial-aid budgets almost six-fold over the last six to seven years in order to shape a diverse student body. One of the fundamental differences that shape our experience of the world is our gender, but we now know that gender is a fluid concept and that to be “manly” or “ladylike” cannot be one monolithic thing; men can and should be sensitive and good listeners, and women can and should be strong-willed.
I came across an interesting article about this subject while visiting the Hawken School’s website. An acquaintance of mine is their Head of School, and a friend from graduate school is their technology director. I have been lucky to work with both of them on a couple of initiatives. The article reproduced on Hawken’s webiste is titled “The Psuedo-science of Single-Sex Education” (Education Forum, 2011) and argues that much of what we think about single-sex education is not based on science but on gut feelings. In fact, the authors argue that “there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.” As I walked in to school this morning, I passed boys and girls alike in pink garb, honoring the valiant fight of women battling breast cancer. I also passed a bulletin board that reads in bold pink letters, “Fight like a girl.” A few weeks ago, representatives of the Womens’ Studies activity held a drive-in movie to help raise awareness about womens’ issues. It was packed . . . with young men and women alike. I can’t help but think what the impact of these kinds of activities would be in a single-sex educational environment. While they certainly have value, do they have the same impact if, at an all-girls school, the audience members at a drive-in movie are all young women? Does a bulletin board about “fighting like a girl” have the same impact if it’s primarily young women seeing the board? Doesn’t Ranney School’s desire to honor Christian, Jewish, and Hindu religious days help raise awareness about world religions among all of our constituents? Put another way, do students learn better by talking and reading about China or learning from students in the community who are literally from China? Isn’t the same true about the range of gender expressions that are, thankfully, experienced on a daily basis in a diverse school?
In summary, students at Ranney School are learning in an environment that, we hope, mimics the real world. While we may be missing some opportunities to explore how privilege has an effect on our educational setting (and the student body itself), we do have a wide range of students and families by design. To be prepared for the diverse challenges of the middle of the 21st century, students must learn all the ways difference is expressed and how each of those expressions can help us solve the problems of the rapidly changing social, political, economic, and multi-gendered world.