Discussing the merits and issues of gender-separated classes: Pro and con voices

May 1, 2020

Middle+school+Spanish+teacher+Glenn+Rodriguez+lectures+his+all-boys+seventh+grade+Spanish+class.+The+class+is+a+part+of+the+gender-separate+class+system+in+the+middle+school.

Tim Mathas/Tower

Middle school Spanish teacher Glenn Rodriguez lectures his all-boys seventh grade Spanish class. The class is a part of the gender-separate class system in the middle school.

Pro: Discussing the merits and issues with gender-separate classes

Since the opening of Masters’ Middle School in 1986, classes have remained gender-separated for a wide variety of reasons. This was primarily based on research that showed that developing young adults, specifically those who were female, are more successful in a single-sex learning environment. 

These studies garnered greater national attention following the publication of the book “Reviving Ophelia” by Mary Pipher, which details the societal pressures young women face, especially those related to education and development.

Following the implementation of single-sex education in schools, this ideology proved to be beneficial for boys for the same reason as girls: they felt more inclined to participate and make themselves vulnerable in class without the fear of embarrassing themselves in front of the opposite gender. 

In my one year experience at the Masters middle school, the gender-separated classes allowed me to flourish in the classroom because I had fewer insecurities hindering my ability to participate in class. This school year was crucial for my personal development because it later provided me with the confidence to speak my mind in co-ed classes in high school. 

As beneficial as single-sex education can be for middle school, it has not been found as successful for high school. The middle school years are more formative in that they are the period in which an individual develops a lifelong system of values. If an individual were to receive a single-sex education through high school, they might not be exposed to certain viewpoints entirely, and might even lack certain social skills. A gender-separate education in the middle school, followed by a co-ed education in high school, is an ideal blend for the development of young adults. 

Although there are numerous benefits to a single-sex education, one of the primary flaws is how this policy affects students who are gender non-conforming. In the current system, they would likely have to choose between the two sexes, or not enroll in the school – both choices are less than ideal. Given how few non-binary students there are in the country, (less than 1% of the United States’ teenage population), drastic changes do not need to be made in order to accommodate them.

A student who does not identify as male or female should have the option to choose which learning environment they feel would be most beneficial for them. This choice would not symbolize which sex they personally feel more closely aligned with, but rather which sex they feel more comfortable interacting with in a classroom setting. 

It is worth noting that choosing to learn in an all-girls or all-boys environment would not isolate students and prevent interactions with those of the other gender. For example, there are several extracurricular clubs such as Diversity Ambassadors, EFFECT, Masters Interested in Sharing and Helping (MISH), and Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), which are student-run and cCo-ed. 

With the addition of GSA and the fact that transgender students have already attended the middle school, the Masters Middle School proves it is and can still be an optimal school for a student who identifies as non-binary or gender non-conforming, regardless of the single-sex learning environments. 

This piece was part of a pro/con exploration of the gender-separated class policy in the middle school. Read the con piece here

Do you agree with the gender-separated class policy in the middle school?

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Middle+school+Spanish+teacher+Glenn+Rodriguez+lectures+his+all-boys+seventh+grade+Spanish+class.+The+class+is+a+part+of+the+gender-separate+class+system+in+the+middle+school.

Tim Mathas/Tower

Middle school Spanish teacher Glenn Rodriguez lectures his all-boys seventh grade Spanish class. The class is a part of the gender-separate class system in the middle school.

Con: Discussing the merits and issues of gender-separate classes

When the Masters middle school first implemented its policy of gender-separated classes from sixth to eighth grade in the 1990s, it was a result of research showing how boys and girls – especially during the middle school years – learn more successfully when taught separately.

However, in the last two decades, a widespread understanding of the complexity of gender has become increasingly important in an array of social settings. Nowadays, gender is more than simply differentiating between male and female. It’s time for the middle school to change accordingly.

In the middle school, nearly all classes are single-sex, meaning that, barring a few exceptions (like language classes), a boy in sixth through eighth grade would not have any classes with a girl, and vice versa.

Within the last few years, Masters has made significant changes to accomodate non-binary students, including gender-neutral elections and gender-neutral restrooms in the upper school. These policies were specifically developed to make Masters a safer space for gender non conforming members of the community. However, the middle school has made no changes in their gender-separated classes policy, even given the progressive changes across campus.

This means that, should a non-binary student enroll in the middle school, they would be forced to choose between all-male classes and all-female classes, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum.

Masters’ official statement of inclusion says, “The Masters School prides itself on being a diverse, inclusive community that honors and understands the uniqueness of each individual, allowing their perspectives to be valued and their needs to be understood.” The needs of each community member cannot be valued when a potential middle school student is forced into choosing between two genders, even if their identity is more complex.

This illuminates an issue that is beyond the discussion between co-ed or single-sex classes. Instead, it uncovers a problem that questions the philosophy that Masters is open to all, regardless of a community member’s identity.

Violating that philosophy of inclusion is unacceptable.

The merits of a single-sex class system are clear, and they are valid. For many, the single-sex learning experience in the middle school is helpful, but even the research supporting single-sex education is not definitive. The 1998 study, Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls, by the American Association of University Women found no evidence that single-sex education is a better alternative to co-ed classes for females.

Juliet Williams, the professor of Gender Studies at UCLA, agreed, saying in an interview with The Atlantic, “What I have found is that single-sex…initiatives have been created with the best of intentions, but that they are not delivering the results”.

In addition, gender-separate classes in the Middle School creates problems regarding class size. For example, if an honors math class in eighth grade had 12 students total, that class could be run co-ed as a normally-sized math class. However, when classes become gender-separated, those 12 students would be forced into two smaller classes, possibly with classes as small as three or four students each. This is a scenario the middle school has faced before, and can create a less-than-ideal class dynamic, but it can be avoided should classes become co-ed.

The evidence for single-sex education is widely disputed, it creates a skewed class dynamic and it violates the core values of Masters by forcing non-binary students to choose a gender. The policy should be discontinued.

When it comes down to something as crucial as inclusion within our school, the line cannot be blurred. The values must be clear and the policies at the school must reflect those values. Right now, the gender-separated classes in the middle school do not reflect our principles. Classes must become co-ed if the middle school wants to maintain the integrity of the Masters promise.

This piece was part of a pro/con exploration of the gender-separated class policy in the middle school. Read the pro piece here

Do you agree with the gender-separated class policy in the middle school?

View Results

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