Single-sex education, girls’ academies, and “Alien” the movie

Sigourney Weaver as "Ripley"

When my little brother, Gus, was in third grade, he insisted that everyone—ranging from my parents to his teachers to his friends—call him “Ripley” after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” movie series. Gus was a huge science fiction fan, and he considered Ripley to be the ultimate protagonist: a brave and cunning lieutenant who consistently out-fought and out-smarted a dangerous alien race.

At the time, I questioned Gus and his name change based on the fact that Ripley was female.

“Why are you changing your name to a girl’s name?” I asked him, “Do you want to be a girl?”

“No, I don’t want to be a girl. I just want to do what Ripley does,” he replied.

As a seventh grader, I remember feeling frustrated with Gus and his inability to acknowledge the inherent differences between himself and Ripley.

The nature of biological differences between the genders is a hot topic in education. On Sunday, the New York Times published “Should Boys and Girls be Taught Differently: The Gender Wars go to School” an article that examines biological arguments set forth by certain advocates of single-sex education. Author Elizabeth Weir distinguishes between two camps of single-sex education: those who are in favor of separating boys and girls because they are essentially and biologically different, and those who “favor separating boys and girls because they have different social experiences and different social needs.”

Some advocates like Leonard Sax claim that there are biological differences between the sexes like “girls hear better than boys” and “boys are better than girls at seeing action. ” Sax uses these claims to justify not only separate classrooms for boys and girls but also separate curricula.

Sax points to Foley Intermediate School, a public school in Alabama that offers separate classes for boys and girls, as an exemplar of single-sex education. At Foley, fourth grade boys study snakes in science class, while fourth grade girls conduct science experiments related to cooking fried chicken.

This type of single-sex curriculum based on "biological differences" between the sexes is dangerous. The Foley program not only ignores the power of social norms but also reinforces traditional gender stereotypes cleverly disguised as "scientifically-based" assumptions about gender . According to Sax and his line of reasoning, should we only teach boys how to play chess because male chess players have traditionally performed better than females?

Although I am critical of the Foley program and Sax’s claims, I am in favor of certain forms of single-sex education that challenge gender inequities. Certain types of single-sex education programs like girls’ chess academies and tournaments have the potential to dismantle as opposed to reinforce gender stereotypes. By motivating and empowering girls to try their hand at traditionally male-dominated sports, these programs may shed new light on claims regarding the “biological differences between the sexes.”

Looking back, I am now impressed with Gus and his rejection of gender stereotypes. By “becoming Ripley” Gus not only rejected traditional gender stereotypes, he also questioned the extent of biological differences between the sexes. Why should we assume that all girls are interested in cooking, that all boys want to learn about snakes, or that all children should only model themselves after real or fictional characters of the same gender?

What do you think about the pros and cons of single-sex education, and about the different arguments surrounding these programs? Please leave your comments and thoughts below.


Omar Little said,

March 4, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

Great post, yo’s. Single-sex education is messed up. Out on the corners, it’s got nothing to do with being a guy or a girl. It’s got everything to do with STANDING TALL. just look at my girl, Snoop - She’s more deadly than five Barksdales combined and THEN SOME.

By the way, your little bro deserves mad respect. He seems to know the right things and has A CODE. I’d take him under my wing anyday.

Omar Little

sam said,

March 7, 2008 @ 9:18 am

agreed single-sex education seems dubious .. the notion that the sexes are born different, and that when boys and girls behave differently that’s why, and that education needs to be tailored to this. in most cases the reverse is true. it seems like years of studies have failed to find significant measurable differences between the sexes, and my guess is that where they do exist it’s because we’ve been teaching kids to think that way. (or maybe because humans are wired to form groups to exclude each other but again that shouldn’t be encouraged.)

the most interesting part of Weil’s article was the thought experiment suggested by Giedd on page four. you wouldn’t want to assign kids to gendered locker rooms on the basis of height — and likewise we shouldn’t assign them to different math classes on the basis of gender. the trend may be there but it’s so slight (differces between sexes being only one standard deviation) that any benefits would be offset by unwanted side-effects.

there are definitely exceptions to this, as you say when the potential to dismantle outweighs the potential to reinforce gender stereotypes. The TYWLS school described in the article seems like it could be a case of this, probably much more common with girls than boys. another exception is when girls/parents are free to decide for themselves, eg attending an after-school program or university.

w/r/t a couple points from the other side, I’m not sure that since six-year olds ‘want’ to be separated we should indulge them. I definitely would’ve preferred an all-boys class when I was six because I thought girls were gross. in hindsight I’m glad it was co-ed. (and conversely I would have preferred an all-girls class when I was eighteen but again for the wrong reasons.)

I’m not sure what to say about the data indicating that single-sex schools do better. It seems plausible that other factors distort the trends, for example a correlation with ‘pro-academic’ parents as suggested by Weil on page eight, or maybe it’s that single-sex classes get a ‘bump’ because they’re new programs and the teachers are more driven. not sure.

jean did you see this article from the washington post?
pretty incredible

Marguerite said,

April 3, 2008 @ 11:53 am

Oh man! Are you all still here? I thought this is not an interesting topic anymore! Visit other sources!

yoshi64 said,

April 11, 2008 @ 5:37 am

well it’s not the kind of news that is worth discussing. i wonder why are you all here so excited?

Carlos MInjarez said,

April 13, 2008 @ 5:51 am

It a very interesting article but the natural world really teaches us that females are different than males in regard to the roles in hunting. In the lioness by example, the female lion always go to hunt first to bring food their cubs. Similarly in humans in most parts of the world females normally cooks at home. The study of this article also brings our attention in how the emotions play their role. When girl “knows” that the players it’s a boy automatically reacts to underperforms in chess. That’s right they’re a point to understand why females are different than males.

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