Does single-sex education help women succeed?

Updated
AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dan Henry

American girls and women can attend single-sex schools from Kindergarten through college. But recent statistics noting a steady decline in enrollment at women’s colleges have led to a re-examination of how well single-sex education works.

Host Melissa Harris-Perry and her panel on Sunday discussed possible reasons for the lower numbers, and debated whether separate schooling for girls is a wise choice. Many notable women have attended all-women’s colleges, Harris-Perry mentioned, including Pamela Melroy, Martha Stewart, and one current and one former U.S. Secretary of State: Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Madeleine Albright. Julianne Malveaux–president emeritus of the all-women Bennett College–boasted that leadership experience is one of the major benefits attributed to women’s schools. “At a women’s college, all leadership positions are women’s positions,” said Malveaux.

“I went kicking and screaming and didn’t realize the actual benefits,” said Kaitlin Seaver, who was sent to an all-girls school as a child and now serves as principal of Girls Prep Lower East Side Middle School in Manhattan. She recalled that her confidence was enhanced and would have been hindered by the presence of boys in the classroom. “We can’t remove every distraction that an adolescent girl is going to face in her life but we can remove one major distraction.” Seaver believes that that there much more room for character growth when there is “no space for gender inequality.”

Columbia University professor Nancy Lesko pushed back. “The single sex debate…presumes that you can separate what goes on in school from what goes on outside of school,” she said. Lesko added that leadership traits that are developed at girls’ schools “can be learned at the dinner table.”

Malveaux conceded that the presence of boys or men can be a distraction, but said that women can focus on their education if they choose to. If single-sex education can’t be definitively shown to have a positive effect, “why not have some variety?” After listing different colleges that have been established to educate specific groups–African-Americans, women, or Jewish students–Malveaux noted that “some [students] want to make that choice.”

For Yale University professor Tracey Meares, choosing schools for her children isn’t so much about the gender of the student body. “What I’m looking for is good schooling,” she said.

See more of our conversation below.

Does single-sex education help women succeed?

Updated