Schools, Single-Sex

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SCHOOLS, SINGLE-SEX. Once the educational norm, single-sex schooling largely disappeared in the United States by the end of the twentieth century. Boys only attended Boston Latin, the first school founded in the United States (1635). The nation's first public schools, founded shortly thereafter, also admitted only boys. Girls of means could attend informal "Dames schools," but their curricula focused mainly on manners and morals rather than literacy. In some locations, especially New England, teachers offered summer school for girls or taught their female pupils before or after regular school hours. By and large, however, formal schooling was reserved for males of families who could afford to spare their labor.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, heightened emphasis on democracy led to increased concern with schooling. Males needed to be educated to participate actively in the new Republic, and females required learning to rear intelligent, knowledgeable sons. As the common school movement developed in the 1800s, many education thinkers recognized the necessity if not the virtue of educating members of both sexes. Need caused by a lack of funds as well as political or personal expediency prompted many communities to adopt "mixed classes" rather than build separate schools for boys and girls. Slowly, often haphazardly, and against the wishes of white, middle-class and upper-class parents, who did not want their daughters educated alongside poor, ethnically diverse boys, coeducation took hold in the mid-and late 1800s. By the nineteenth century's close, only 12 of 628 American public school districts reported having single-sex schools. Private and parochial schools were the last remaining sites of single-sex education.

The twentieth century, with its democratization of education in the 1920s and 1950s and cries for equality in the women's movement, witnessed the further decline of single-sex schooling. In 1963, 166 of 682 schools belonging to the National Association of Independent Schools admitted only girls, but that number had shrunk to 109 out of 870 in 1992. Half of the nation's Catholic schools were single-sex in 1988, but only ten years later that number had dropped to 40 percent.

Movements in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century to revive single-sex public schooling met mixed responses on both the social and the judicial fronts. Proponents of educating African American males and underprivileged females separately faced successful challenges in court for violating the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause or Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972. Despite growing opposition, supporters of single-sex schooling continued to argue that educating girls and boys separately allows members of each sex to reach their maximum academic, social, and personal potential.


American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls. Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1998.

Riordan, Cornelius. Girls and Boys in School: Together or Separate? New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1990.

Shmurak, Carole B. Voices of Hope: Adolescent Girls at Single Sex and Coeducational Schools. Adolescent Cultures, School, and Society series, vol. 4. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Streitmatter, Janice L. For Girls Only: Making a Case for Single-Sex Schooling. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Tyack, David, and Elisabeth Hansot. Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Public Schools. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1992.

Diana B.Turk

See alsoEducation ; Education, Higher: Women's Colleges .