Karen Stabiner had heard, as many parents have, that all-girl schools would provide a superior education for their daughters. Yet she remained skeptical, and so, being a reporter, decided to find out for herself. That’s how she came to spend the 1998–99 school year at two all-girl schools—Marlborough, an elite prep school in Los Angeles, and The Young Women’s Leadership School in Harlem, a controversial experiment within the New York City public school system.
The research made her a true believer in the benefits of all-girl schools, so much so that she sent her own daughter to Marlborough. From that experience came the book All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why it Matters. Here’s what she had to say to us on the topic.
Back to School
I was at Marlborough almost every day of the 1998-99 school year, and in addition to attending classes I showed up at athletic events, school dances, plays, art exhibits. I also visited all of the families at home.
I was at the Harlem school five times, for several days at a time, and there I did the same thing—spent time with students, teachers, administrators, and parents inside and outside of school. I kept in touch with both schools the following year, when I was writing the book.
Why So Few?
There still aren’t many all-girl schools. There are two main reasons for that. First, there are the legal, economic, and logistical issues. It’s still not strictly legal for a public school to be single gender. And second, there is the internal resistance—lots of parents still resist the notion of single-gender schools. And I understand that, because when I started this book I was as skeptical as anybody.
When I served as a tour guide at Marlborough last fall, even some of the parents whose daughters had already applied were saying, “My daughter doesn’t really need this. She’s a good student.” Many of us have antiquated assumptions about what girls’ schools are. We still think these are schools you put your daughter in if she can’t handle the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Then there’s a feeling—a holdover from the ’70s—that equality is defined in terms of getting what the guys have. And that attitude suggests that girls’ schools are second best.
Here’s what I think happened: In the early stages of the women’s movement we had to define equality in quantifiable ways—how many women are at this level in the corporation, how many women are in Harvard. But recently we’ve gotten more sophisticated in defining and evaluating equality. Now many feminists are willing to say equality is where we want to get to, but there may be different ways to get there. If a girl thrives in a girl-focused math class, it only means she learns differently than boys do, not that she’s stupider.
It pains me when a group like NOW tries to shut down the Harlem school (as they did several years ago). But I understand why they did that. They were concerned that if public schools acknowledged the differences between boys and girls, that would erode progress being made in schools becoming more equitable. The fear is that if social policy acknowledges that boys and girls are different, it could be misinterpreted as meaning that girls aren’t as good as boys.
What a Single-Gender School Can Do
Despite the fears of some, what I and others have found is that all-girl schools do a real favor to adolescent girls, by taking them out of our image-centered culture and into a place where what’s important is how you think and who you are. How could that be anything but positive?
Some parents and plenty of teachers will deny there’s a problem with gender equity at their school. In fact, when Barbara Wagner, the head of school at Marlborough, was a music teacher, she was videotaped to see whether equity was an issue in her classroom. “I would have bet my house,” she told me, “that girls got as much attention as boys in my classroom.” Instead, the researcher showed her that boys got to speak five to seven times as often as girls, frequently not waiting until they were called on. She was stunned.
As a parent you just can’t take this issue too seriously. If you look at statistics from the National Coalition of Girls Schools as to what happens to graduates of all-girls schools, it’s hard to top it. Girls with single-sex educations go out into the world more confident of their capabilities, more willing to change their minds and take risks, and less afraid to really define an adult life for themselves.
And the bottom line really is this: How do they do after school is over? Because girls often perform well in school—they’re socialized to be good, and one way to be good is to get good grades. What I want to know is, what will my daughter take out of that environment into her adult life?
When Do Girls Benefit Most?
Experts disagree as to when girls profit most from single-sex education. Some feel that the elementary school years are the most important because of developmental differences between the genders. I think that the middle-school and high-school years matter the most, because that’s when a girl is most vulnerable to distraction and peer pressure. And too, that’s the time when you want to build a girl who believes in herself—in her inner self, her spirit–rather than in her wardrobe, new hairstyle, or ability to get a date. Single gender middle and high schools give girls a chance to figure out who they really want to be.
Why Wear Uniforms?
Uniforms are controversial, but I believe they accomplish a lot. First, they reduce the economic inequalities that exist at any school, public or private. Also, since they’re straightforwardly designed, they reduce the body competition among girls. Finally, and most importantly, they say to the girls that it’s what’s on the inside that counts the most. You become known for qualities other than your wardrobe.
Making Public Schools Equitable
Of course, not every family can find or afford an all-girl school. But you can work to make her co-ed school more equitable. The most important thing is to listen to what a girl has to say. Does she talk about English class and never mention algebra? If so, perhaps you need to find out why.
There are techniques used in all-girl schools that allow everyone to contribute, techniques that can easily be exported to co-ed schools. What if she can’t get a word in edgewise in math class and thus no longer likes it? You could suggest that the math teacher use talking points, a system in which each girl gets 10 cardboard coins at the beginning of class. She must spend them all at each class but she can’t spend more than those 10.
The second most important thing—and this is difficult—is to volunteer at the school. If you can’t do it during the workday, try to chaperone a school dance or help with a weekend community service project. You can learn a lot about your daughter’s school by being there, and you can build relationships with faculty and staff.
If you think there’s a problem, be an advocate for your daughter. Speak to the teacher, or to an administrator. As I learned, even the best-intentioned teachers can sometimes overlook a problem, and they may be grateful for your input. Trust your instincts about what’s going on, and don’t back down.
Talk with your girl. Be a decent role model. Provide her with a reality check for the images she sees every day. Encourage her to stand up for herself, and be prepared to intervene if she wants help. And encourage your school and other parents to address issues of gender equity: Invite speakers, set up workshops, keep a dialogue going on this topic.
Are Girls’ Schools the Real World?
What’s real about a world in which parents of 12-year-old girls are worried about oral sex and their daughters dressing like call girls. The Marlborough girls worried that they wouldn’t acclimate to a co-ed environment or ever have a date when they got to college. But after an awkward first few weeks, they reported feeling better prepared for the adult world. They said they knew who they were, and weren’t so quick to defer and compromise just to have a boyfriend. As kids are being encouraged to grow up faster and faster, it’s the parents’ job and privilege to help them put the brakes on. Girls’ schools can help do that.
One of the things I love about Marlborough is that the girls run down the halls arm in arm, giggling. They’re still being children. The more time you can give a girl to figure out who she is and to find her strengths, the better she’ll be able to deal with the real world as an adult.
My daughter and her friends love to debate us. It’s such a pleasure to hear them think out loud. In a good girls’ school there are high expectations communicated by the teachers that the girls just sop up. If you put your daughter somewhere people have expectations of her competence and abilities, she will respond to that.