The Case for Single Sex Education
The debate about education in this country is never more intense than on the issue of single-sex education. Once the tradition in America, it became marginalized after the feminist protests in the sixties. Title IX reforms in 1972 made coeducation in public schools a national policy. Single-sex public education became illegal and in 1996 after the VMI ruling, unconstitutional. Today, there are increasing concerns that academic achievement has suffered in the four decades since the reforms.
When studies here in the United States found that girls in single-sex classes outperformed those in coeducational classes, the data were disputed and discounted, often due to political or gender bias. When studies in China, South Korea, Japan and Australia replicated the outcomes, leading educators persuasively argued for shifts in national policy that favored single-sex education. In the course of a few years, the results have been remarkable.
Students from Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Australia outperformed the United States in reading, mathematics and science in international assessments of achievement. On the triennial PISA assessment, fifteen-year old US students scored 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 32nd in mathematics among the 34 OECD nations.
Girls scored significantly higher than boys in reading, but US girls barely outperformed them. Girls did slightly better than boys in science but were significantly outperformed by them in math. Asian girls outperformed everyone all three disciplines.
These results differ notably from our historical norms. American students traditionally outperformed students from other nations. Public and private single-sex schools and colleges were common. That trend came to an abrupt end with the passage of Title IX legislation in 1972. Coeducation was made a national mandate. The number of women’s colleges shrank from 300 in 1960 to 80 in 1998. Today there are less than 60.
The United States spends vast sums to educate its students. American students get a diploma after twelve years of public school, not the knowledge it represents. A study by the American Institute for Research found 75% of students at 2-year community colleges and 50% of students at 4-year colleges lack basic proficiency in assessments of literacy. The role of coeducation in this failure is of significant importance. The role of a heretofore unrecognized psychological dynamic in coeducation itself that contributes to the poor results for girls is the subject of this essay.
To understand the nature of the problem requires a brief discussion of an early observation Sigmund Freud’s made in his work with male patients. He described a rivalry between fathers and sons that he called the Oedipus complex. Based on the Greek myth Oedipus Rex, a narrative about a son who kills his father, it is a universal phenomenon that can be found in all classes, cultures and countries.
Sons want to defeat and supplant their fathers. This unconscious wish can be seen in the conflict with authority figures that some men continue to have throughout their lives.
A similar oedipal rivalry exists between sons and daughters as mothers and sisters will acknowledge. The birth of a daughter is often met with loud protests by her brother unhappy at being usurped. His bruised narcissism never recovers, and deepens if she turns out to be more gifted. It is the effect on her achievement of this injury that is our primary focus.
His physical presence disrupts an important psychological partnership between father and daughter. Through this process, called identification, a daughter internalizes important aspects of the father’s character. He provides the foundation for her identity and her intellectual development.
When there are no brothers, the process proceeds without interruption. Margaret Thatcher, eighteen Nobel Laureates and a long list of heads of state had no brothers. Brothers derail the process of identification and character formation. They inhibit the development of their sister’s potential.
The presence of males in the classrooms recreates the oedipal setting. This paradigm is the structural flaw in coeducation. The effect is to inhibit achievement of female classmates. Studies done in the US and replicated in South Korea, Australia and China have documented that girls in single-sex schools outperform girls in coed schools. The data mirror an absence of the oedipal inhibition.
Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug are graduates of women’s colleges as are Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. The Black and Hispanic girls at The Young Women’s Leadership Academy in East Harlem have the highest scores on the New York State Regents Exam. Sister peers at Ivy Preparatory Academy did the same in Georgia.
This is a universal phenomenon. The benefits of an education at all-girls’ schools and colleges are all independent of race, class or socioeconomic background. The environment itself minimizes these differences. It is of particular importance for girls from single-parent, disadvantaged, minority or fatherless families.
The classroom and dormitory become a milieu that is provides a therapeutic or corrective experience that repairs the effects of less than perfect or dysfunctional backgrounds. That is one of its greatest, but unappreciated strengths. It is what accounts for the incredible record of the graduates from the women’s public and private colleges and of the legendary Catholic school system.
Margaret Thatcher, many women statesmen, Nobel Laureates and billionaires are graduates of these schools. Prime Minister Jennifer Smith, Governor Michӓelle Jean and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns came from poor, uneducated Black families. They credit their Catholic all-girls’ education for their success. A partial list of these notable graduates can be found in the footnotes.
A six-year study of 270,000 Australian students found a 15-22% difference in the scores of students in single-sex schools and their male and female peers in coed schools. The data resulted in increased numbers of single-sex schools. Singapore, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand got similar results in their studies and followed suit. Is the link between the shift and the PISA scores not evident?
Cornelius Riordan aptly described the environment in public coeducational schools as anti-academic. Students lack discipline. Leonard Sax contrasts this chaos with a purposefulness, order and decorum in single-sex classrooms. The first female valedictorians of Harvard University are both graduates of Cornelia Connelly High School, an all-girls’ Catholic high school in Anaheim.4 In the absence of Oedipus, a young Athena can flourish.
America can easily equal the results of the Asian Tigers with a shift in education policy. In 1968, 9% of medical school applicants were women. 35% of Barnard graduates applied to medical school that year. Barnard College has graduated more physicians and professors of chemistry than any other school in the country. 58% of Mt. Holyoke graduates have applied to medical school each year since 2008. No coeducational college has ever approached that record of achievement. It can only happen in the absence of oedipal rivalry.
Where do we go from here? We can go up and rescue victory from the jaws of defeat, as is our wont, or we can go down in defeat, becoming the modern sequel to Gibbons’ magnum opus, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. America’s future is in our hands. There is a degree of urgency. There is a critical point in nuclear physics beyond which it becomes impossible to reverse the process. The consequences of public education to educate the country’s youth are reaching critical mass. As William Damon noted in Failing Liberty 101, survival of a democracy depends upon an informed and educated citizenry. As PISA and NAEP demonstrate, the future of our Republic is in jeopardy.
R. Claire Friend, MD, is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.
(1) List of Brother-less Female Prime Ministers:
Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, President of Argentina, 199702001
Only daughter. Father was bus driver.
Sheikh Hasina-Wajed, Prime Minister Bangladesh, 1996-2001, 2005-
Elder of two daughters, father was founder of independent Bangladesh
Dame Jennifer Shipley, Prime Minister New Zealand 1997-1999
One of four daughters, attended Marlborough College for Girls
Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia 2010-
Younger of two daughters.
Father was psychiatric nurse. Mother worked in Salvation Army nursing home.
Kim Campbell, Prime Minister Canada, 1993
1st woman head of state in North America
One of two daughters, raised by father after mother abandoned family
Maria Lourdes de Pintasilgo, Prime Minister Portugal, 1979-1980
Only child. Third woman to serve as PM in Europe
Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister Norway
Norway’s 1st female PM. Mother of the Nation. One younger sister
Inherited passion for political activism from her physician father, ambition to become physician like him
Dr. Dame Hilda Louisa Bynoe, Governor of Grenada
1st female governor in British Commonwealth. One sister.
Graduate St. Joseph’s Convent, Catholic high school. Graduate medical school.
Queen Margarethe II, 1st female monarch of Denmark
Two sisters: Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, Princess Benedikte of Demark
Eldest daughter of King Frederick IX
Queen Elizabeth II
One younger sister, Princess Margaret.
Longest reigning monarch of England. Only legitimate child of Prince Edward and Princess Victoria.
Father died one year after her birth.
Michaelle Jean, Governor General of Canada, 2005-2010
1st Black female Canadian Governor General
One older sister. Attended Protestant preparatory school in Haiti.
Yulia Tymoshenko, Prime Minister of Ukraine, 2005, 2007-2010
Only child. Father abandoned family when she was three years old.
Joyce Banda, President of Malawi, 2012
2nd female president of Africa. One sister.
Dame Jenny Shipley, Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1997-1999
Three sisters. Attended Marlborough Girls College
Her Excellency Dame Pearlette Louisy, Governor General of St. Lucia
Two sisters. Father abandoned family.
Attended Laborie Girls School and St. Joseph’s Convent.
Margaret Thatcher, Baroness of Kesteven, 1st and only female Prime Minister of England
One older sister. Credited Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School for her success in life.
Golda Meir, 1st and only female Prime Minister of Israel
Middle child, two sisters. Architect of Israel’s statehood.
Indira Ghandhi, Prime Minister of India
Tarja Halonen, President of Finland
Vigdis Finnbogadottir, President of Iceland
1st woman head of state
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka
1st woman Prime Minister
(2) List of Brother-less Female Nobel Laureates:
Irene Joliot Curie , Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1935
Only child. Daughter of Marie Curie, double Nobel Laureate
Maria Goeppert Mayer, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1963
Only child. 7th generation of a family of university professors
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1964
Three younger sisters. Born in Cairo.
Ada E. Yonath, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2009
One sister. Raised in poverty in Israel.
Gerty Cori, Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, 1947
1st American female Nobel Laureate. Two younger sisters
Linda Buck, Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, 2004
Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, 2009
One younger sister. Parents both physicians.
Graduate all-girls’ grammar and high school.
Sigrid Undset , Nobel Prize in Literature, 1928
Two younger sisters. Father died when she was 11.
Graduate all-girls school in Denmark.
Pearl S. Buck, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1938
Only child. Educated missionary schools in China.
Graduate Randolph-Macon Women’s College
Gabriela Mistral, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1945
One older sister. Father deserted family soon after her birth.
Educated at home by sister.
Elfriede Jelinek, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1946
Nelly Sachs, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1966
Only child. Home-schooled.
Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1991
Only child. Attended Our Lady of Mercy Convent, high school for girls.
Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel Prize in Literature,1996
One older sister. Educated in convent high school
Herta Muller, Nobel Prize in Literature, 2008
Elinor Ostrom, 1st woman to win Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, 2009
Only child. Grew up during Great Depression, very poor family.
Betty Williams, Nobel Peace Prize, 1976
Four younger sisters. Grew up in working-class Irish family.
Graduate St. Teresa’s Primary School and St. Dominic’s Grammar School.
Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace Prize, 2011
Born in Liberia. Two sisters.
(3) Famous Alumnae of Women’s Colleges:
• Martha Stewart—Business titan and entrepreneur
• Margaret Mead- Author and cultural anthropologist
• Jeane Kirkpatrick- 1st female US Ambassador to the United Nations
Bryn Mawr College
• Emily Green Balch- Nobel Peace Prize
• Drew Gilpin Faust—1st female president of Harvard University
• Katherine Hepburn- Only actor to win four Academy Awards
• Dorothy Klenke- 1st female US neurosurgeon
College of Notre Dame of Maryland
• Brigadier General Elizabeth Hoisington- 1st female general, US Army
College of St. Elizabeth
• Rear Admiral Louise Wilmot- Highest ranking woman officer, US Navy
Marymount Manhattan College
• Geraldine Ferraro- 1st woman candidate for US Vice-President
Mount Holyoke College
• Elaine Chao- 1st Asian-American woman appointed to US Cabinet, Secretary of Labor
• Frances Perkins—1st woman appointed to US Cabinet, Secretary of Labor
• Emily Dickinson- American poet
Randolph Macon College
• Pearl Buck- Nobel Prize in Literature
• Gloria Steinem— Spokesperson for women’s liberation movement, co-founder Ms. magazine
• Betty Friedan—Co-founder NOW, author The Feminine Mystique
• Julia Child—Chef and author
• Sylvia Plath- Feminist author and poet
• Selena Sloan Butler- Graduated 1888, Co-founder National Parent-Teacher Association
• Major General Marcelite J. Harris- 1st African-American woman general USAF
• Audrey Manley- Acting Surgeon General, President of Spelman College
• Alice Walker- Author The Color Purple
• Madeleine Albright—First female U.S. secretary of state
• Jane Matilda Bolin- 1st African-American US judge
• Hillary Clinton— 1st First Lady Secretary of state
• Madame Chiang-Kai-shek- First lady of China
• Catherine Brewer Benson- 1st female awarded college degree, 1840. Georgia Female College (now Wesleyan College) world’s 1st women’s college.