Do same-sex classrooms help or hinder? That’s the question asked in Juliet Williams’s The Separation Solution? Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality.
The UCLA gender studies professor’s study looks at the way gender separation is being used as a method of educational reform—and whether or not it’s working. It’s become more popular in the last three decades, Williams says. But it continues to be a source of contention. “A lot of people who have their hearts in the right place disagree about some very fundamental questions,” she notes.
In fact, according to recent studies, gender separation isn’t really a predictor of the quality of education. “The most accurate way to look at the whole field,” Williams says, “is that, with co-education, we know it can work. We know there are some excellent schools out there and lots of not-so-excellent schools. Among the excellent schools, some are co-ed and some are single-sex. But what the excellent schools have in common doesn’t have anything to do with gender.”
Williams also points out that there are other, far more pressing, educational reforms needed in American schools today. Single-sex classrooms and schools, she suggests, are popular right now because they are simple fixes—they don’t require the time, effort, and money necessary to provide better nutrition, more teachers, more school hours, or more professional development.
Same-sex reform, when it does happen, tends to be focused primarily on at-risk boys of color. Williams finds this concerning because it ignores at-risk girls of color, who are also struggling. “A whole generation of girls is not only being left out, but this also reinforces the misunderstanding that problems of racism or economic disadvantage only affect boys,” she says.
The issues brought up in Williams’s book were discussed by larger panels of academics at The Separation Solution conference at the UCLA School of Law, which took place on May 6-7. Supported by the African American Policy Forum and the Center of Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, the conference was part of the Irene Flecknoe Ross Lecture Series.