Would Henry V have benefitted from an all-boys school? David Brooks, in his critique of the American school scene, doesn’t look to single-gender schools to re-engage children like the rambunctious and adversarial Prince Hal, but officials at the U.S. Department of Education surely had boys like him in mind when they relaxed restrictions on single-sex public education six years ago.

prince hal and the moon
Perhaps Prince Hal could've used an all-boys school.
Photo by Kevin Rawlings.

Those revised Title IX regulations allowed single-sex education to flourish. Nearly 400 public schools nationwide currently offer single-gender classrooms (ten years ago, there were only a dozen) and another 116 schools exist to serve either all boys or all girls. The freedom to establish these schools comes with a sensible caveat: The option must be voluntary for families. An Associated Press report last week radiated more heat than light on this growth, but it reminded us of the move to engage children like Henry with the methods Brooks says may be more effective for some boys than others: competition over cooperation; boot camps over friendship circles.

Leonard Sax, the founder and chief executive of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, contends that some boys need to embrace Spartacus before they can learn to love Jane Eyre. That position, of course, has its detractors, and chief among Sax’s antagonists is Diane Halpern, former president of the American Psychological Association. Halpern and other researchers last fall argued that Sax has led many educators to deepen the gender divide with groundless claims. She called on the Education Department to rescind its changes to Title IX, reminding officials that their own review in 2005 on the merits of single-sex education was “equivocal.”

Halpern, however, has engaged in her own selective review of the literature. The department examined the early implementation of its regulatory changes in 2008 and found that, while results were mixed, “the findings suggest some support for the premise that single-sex schooling can be helpful.”

More specifically:

  • The department’s researchers observed more positive academic and behavioral interactions between teachers and students in single-sex schools;
  • Students in single-sex schools showed a greater sense of community and were less likely to disrupt class;
  • Teachers believed single-sex education effectively eliminated the distractions to learning in both sexes, and, at least in high school, behavior problems were less serious; and
  • Parents and students cited the same benefits teachers identified and implied they chose a single-sex school for those reasons.

Halpern and her colleagues may want us all to learn and play together, but their case is paternalistic. They say that single-sex education is “not a choice public schools should embrace,” yet it’s the parent who’s making the choice; these schools are flourishing because there’s demand for them. We can, and should, further study the outcomes of these schools and hold them accountable for student learning just as we would for any public school. Halpern, along with the ACLU, may have states and school districts in their sights, but they’re sidestepping (or dismissing) the fact that parents want this option. Should it only be available to families who can afford a private education? Halpern is silent on this question.

Brooks’ point is that our cultural ideal of the American school may be causing boys, in particular, to disengage from school altogether. Maybe all it takes to re-engage them is a school of their own.

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