Six years after sounding an alarm on gender bias in schools, the American Assn. of University Women contends in a new report that separating boys and girls is not the solution, despite mounting interest nationwide in single-sex public education.
"There is no escape from sexism in single-sex schools and classes," concluded the AAUW Educational Foundation, a Washington-based advocate for gender equity, after canvassing research on private and public schools in several countries.
The report follows a 1992 study by the same organization that documented how female students in coeducational settings often encounter discrimination that holds them back academically. That study is often cited as a catalyst for single-gender public education, though AAUW officials say they never endorsed such an approach.
The new report, scheduled for release today, is already generating some dispute among education experts. It comes as educators in California and elsewhere experiment with all-girl and all-boy public schooling, which for decades had been the province of private schools in the United States.
Last year, California launched its first state-sponsored single-sex schools. Six pairs of academies are now open--one in Orange County and five in Central and Northern California--at an annual cost of $3 million.
California now has the nation's largest single-sex public school program. Gov. Pete Wilson has proposed spending $5 million in the next school year to expand the trial. State officials, seeking to ward off legal challenges, stress that enrollment is voluntary and funding is evenly split between boys and girls.
The AAUW report, which focused on female students, struck a skeptical tone. Among its findings:
* There is "no evidence in general" that single-sex education is better for girls than coeducation.
* Segregating girls and boys for some classes can disrupt otherwise coeducational public schools.
* Some single-sex programs help some students, in particular girls who might otherwise shy away from math and science. But experts debate whether those benefits are caused by dividing boys and girls or by factors such as smaller classes, increased classroom discipline and more intensive curriculum.
"What the research shows is that separating by sex is not the solution to gender inequity in education," said Maggie Ford, president of the AAUW foundation. "When elements of a good education are present, girls and boys succeed."
One researcher who contributed to the report complained that the AAUW's spin on the research was "slanted" and "off the deep end."
Cornelius Riordan, a sociologist at Providence College and expert on Catholic schools, said authors of the report and an accompanying news release had buried findings favorable to single-sex advocates.
Riordan contends that single-sex schooling works, in large part because parents and students who choose it are making a commitment to academic success.
But Pamela Haag, a senior research associate for the foundation, said the AAUW does not oppose experimentation with single-sex schooling.
"One of our major goals with this report was to complicate the popular debate a little bit," Haag said. "We're trying to speak in terms that transcend pro and con. The research is very inconsistent in its conclusions."
The AAUW's earlier report described how female students in coeducational settings often receive less attention from teachers than males, were less likely to pursue math or science careers, and encountered discrimination in school curriculum and standardized tests.
The AAUW, founded in 1881 and counting 160,000 members, is one of the nation's most influential women's groups.
In Fountain Valley, where the Orange County Department of Education operates two single-sex academies for 75 boys and 40 girls from grades 7 to 12, Principal Susan M. Condrey acknowledged that there are no hard data to prove that dividing the sexes alone has improved learning.
But Condrey said her students have blossomed in an environment without the pressure to preen for the opposite sex. Students have fought less and studied more, she said.
"The girls are more relaxed and the boys are too," Condrey said. "They just seem to have greater freedom to express themselves. That's the bottom line."
California's program is hardly a large initiative. The academies in Fountain Valley, Stockton, San Francisco, Siskiyou County, San Jose and East Palo Alto serve fewer than 780 students out of a total public school enrollment of more than 5.6 million. No evaluation has been made yet of how the academies are performing.
Still, the program has generated intense interest. Dan Edwards, a Wilson spokesman, said national media coverage of the state's single-sex schools has matched the publicity of its massive initiative to reduce the size of elementary classes.
Edwards said the single-sex program continues Wilson's "long-standing commitment" to school choice.