Background on all-girls education

For my second summarizing post, I am providing excerpts on the background of my research and on the reasoning for my research question. I took out the citations from this post for aesthetic purposes, but if you want to see any of the actual studies/trends I allude to, just let me know!


From the beginning of the United States’ contemporary education system in the 19th century, co-education was the norm. Though some single-gender schools existed, the vast majority of boys and girls learned alongside each other, and educators overwhelmingly argued that the surest way to ensure equal education was through co-educational instruction. In fact, separation by gender in public education was ruled illegal in 1972 by the proceedings of Title IX.

However, increasing concerns about gender equity in the 1990s led to an unprecedented increase in enrollment in private all-girls schools.  A number of seminal studies, including the American Association of University Women’s “How Schools Shortchange Girls: A Study of Major Findings in Education”and Myra Sadker’s 1994 book, “Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls,” exposed systemic gender biases in the co-education system that prevent girls from fulfilling their full potential. In response, more families enrolled their children in single-sex schools than ever before: a 1998 study conducted by the National Coalition of Girls Schools found that applications to all-girls private and parochial institutions had increased by 32 percent since 1991.

This national phenomenon was so pervasive and compelling that the US Department of Education amended Title IX in 2006 to give districts increased flexibility to implement single-sex programs. Consequently, the number of single-sex public schools skyrocketed from 34 in 2005 to 850 in 2015.

Despite sustained interest in single-sex education, though, the topic is contentious today. Many major organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Organization for Women (NOW), condemn single-sex education, citing its uncertain academic benefits: some major studies, like L. Sax’s “Women Graduates of Single-Sex and Coeducational High Schools: Differences in their Characteristics and the Transition to College”, show that single-sex education improves test scores, while others, like “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” by D. Halpern, L. Eliot, et al, prove the effects to be null.

Given the ambiguous academic advantages, one wonders why so many parents continue to choose single-sex education for their children.

Many advocates of girls schools attribute it to the unique culture of all-girls schools, suggesting that the schools provide particularly nurturing environments in which young women can cultivate their most genuine selves.

The results of a 2006 study commissioned by the US Department of Education and conducted by RMC Research Corporation supported this hypothesis regarding institutional culture. The descriptive study, titled “Early Implementation of Public Single-Sex Schools: Perceptions and Characteristics,” consisted of an in-depth literature review and a “preliminary exploratory observational study of a subsample of currently operating public single-sex schools” (ix). The study addressed concerns regarding ambiguous academic advantages and concluded that “overall, there were more socio-emotional outcomes favoring single-sex schools than academic outcomes favoring single-sex schools” (xi). The concept of socio-emotional learning regards child development that is largely interpersonal and relating to, onymously, a student’s social and emotional development. In both RMC’s site visits and its literature review, students in single-gendered institutions embodied these social-emotional traits, as they “exhibited a greater sense of community, interacted more positively with one another, showed greater respect for their teachers, were less likely to initiate class disruptions, and demonstrated more positive student role modeling than students in the coed comparison schools” (x).  

RMC’s findings are not an anomaly. Researchers from a variety of disciplines support the notion that single-sex schools, especially those for girls, provide students with environments more conducive to social-emotional development, regardless of whether or not they provide a better academic alternative to co-ed schools.

Dr. Rosemary C. Salomone, an expert on education law and policy, published an article in the April 2006 Columbia University’s Teachers College Record arguing that “single-sex programs…create an institutional and classroom climate in which female students can express themselves freely and frequently, and develop higher order thinking skills.”

Dr. Richard A. Holmgren’s 2013 study, “Steeped in Learning: The Student Experience at All-Girls Schools,” found that, as a result of the empowering school climate, “87% of girls’ school students agree to strongly agree that their opinions are respected at their school (compared to 58% of girls at coed schools), and 89% report they are comfortable to be themselves (compared to 72% of girls at coed schools).”

Though many researchers find institutional cultures centered on social-emotional learning to be prevalent among girls’ schools, regardless of whether the school is public, private, charter, or parochial, much of their research centers upon the results of this school culture, not on the steps taken to cultivate it.

One would assume that different kinds of schools face disparate challenges in building these social-emotionally-focused institutional cultures. After all, 2012 statistics cite the average private school cost to be approximately $21,510 per year and the average parochial school cost to be $6,890. By comparison, 2017 federal data estimates that 78% of students in single-gendered public schools qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a marker widely used as a proxy to denote the percentage of students living in poverty.

Given the significant demographic variety, different kinds of schools might be expected to cultivate institutional culture using disparate means. However, some experts, such as James A. Palmieri, argue that all schools, even those with significantly fewer resources available, follow the same model when shaping their institutional culture. Palmieri argues that, given their relative newness, non-private all-girls school must root their practices in those of their wealthier, private counterparts: “the public girls’ school start-ups have only successful independent girls’ school designs and approaches from which to model themselves after in hopes of increasing student achievement over existing options” (Palmieri, pg 8).

In this paper, I explore Palmieri’s assertion, and seek to determine the relationship between a student body’s socioeconomic composition and the specific types of programs implemented by the administration. I particularly focus on the different challenges and goals school administrators must address with regards to cultivating an institutional culture of social-emotional learning.