While much of our culture minimizes fundamental differences between boys and girls, some schools are actually embracing these disparities to create a more powerful learning environment. All-girl public high schools may not be the norm in most school districts, but the schools that do exist appear to be thriving. These schools cater to female students in a much different way than traditional co-ed classroom settings, and research indicates that the single-sex approach may have significant advantages.
Learning Differences by Gender
To understand the potential benefits of an all-female education, we must begin with an overview of the learning differences between genders. According to Scholastic, girls and boys enter school using parts of their brains quite differently. In early grades, girls use their left-hemispheres to excel in writing, reading and speaking. Right-hemisphere development helps girls tune in to the feelings of teachers and other students.
On the other hand, boys in the early years use their left-hemispheres to recall important facts, while right-hemispheres are used for visual-spatial and visual-motor skills. This may in part explain why boys tend to excel in math, science and geography in the early years, while girls perform better in basics like reading and writing. These generalizations do not apply to all children all of the time, but they do indicate basic strengths and weaknesses that tend to differ between the two genders.
When hormones start revving, they can also affect how girls perform in school. Michelle Russell, co-director of the Young Woman's Leadership Charter School in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune that hormone surges girls experience by sixth or seventh grade may contribute to girls stepping back and allowing boys to take the lead in school. The result is that by high school, boys are more willing to participate in class and take on leadership roles within the school.
Benefits of All-Girl Schools
Myra and David Sadker, professors who conducted 10 years of research at American University, told the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, "When girls go to single-sex schools, they stop being the audience and become the players." The students that go to all-girl schools have the opportunity to participate in activities unhindered, including sports, public speaking and school government. The environment puts these female students at a decided advantage when it comes time to enter college and prepare for a career, according to the NCGS.
The National Youth Network lists some of the following benefits of all-girl schools:
- All-girls schools often provide more positive female role models.
- Learning takes center stage, without social distractions.
- Girls are encouraged to excel in "male" subjects like math and science.
- Girls are more likely to take on a leadership role in athletics.
- The learning environment is tailored to the unique learning styles of females.
- All-girl schools play a role in countering current culture, allowing girls to determine who they are without outside influences.
On top of the many benefits discovered from all-girl schools, statistics have also shown significant differences in the performance and potential of girls who attend these institutions.
What the Numbers Show
Studies conducted on single-sex schools frequently show that this learning environment is indeed advantageous to the majority of students attending them. The Bromley Brook School website lists the following studies:
- A 20-year study conducted by Dr. Ken Rowe in Australia showed that boys and girls attending single-sex schools scored between 15 and 22 percentile points higher on standardized tests.
- In 1995, 100 eighth-grade students in Virginia were separated for math and science classes. The study found that girls immediately began to achieve better when placed in the single-sex environment.
- A 2001 study in Britain looking at 2954 high schools and 979 primary schools found that all girls improved their academic performance in a single-sex classroom, regardless of their ability or socio-economic status.
- Recent studies of the brain using magnetic resonance imaging showed physical differences between male and female brains as they function, indicating boys and girls may require different teaching methods.
An Exemplary Example: The Young Women's Leadership Charter School
The Young Women's Leadership Charter School in Chicago is living the difference an all-girls school can make every day. This all-girls' school just celebrated its 10th anniversary and continues to be the only all-girls' school in the Chicago area.
According to school documents, 96% of the senior class graduated in 2009, and 89% were accepted into college. When one considers that 80% of this student population comes from low-income households, the numbers are impressive.
All-girls' high schools may not be common, but the research backing their effectiveness is compelling, and their popularity is growing. Despite living in a society where gender differences are frequently diminished or ignored, it appears that celebrating those differences in school may be one solution for better academic performance and greater success afterward.