Comparison of Private and Public Schools - ThoughtCo

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Tisch is 53 years old, with reddish hair and a strong, warm face. One of the first things she did when she got serious about trying to start an all-girls public school was to hire a lawyer, George Shebitz, to explore the legality of a single-sex school. Tisch started visiting elite Manhattan all-girls private schools like Brearley and Spence, and once she had a vision of girls in blue-and-white uniforms sitting in circles around tables instead of at rows of desks, Tisch met with Evelyn Castro, who was then the superintendent of New York City’s District 4, the district that encompasses part of East Harlem and one known for its innovation. She then spoke to Rosemary Salomone, the legal scholar at St. John’s. Salomone knew of a 1994 report by the New York City Department of Education showing a gender gap in math and science scores, which was particularly notable among African American and Hispanic females. Salomone knew that Title IX prohibits schools that receive Federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex, but she explained to Tisch that this gender gap could work to her advantage.

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A deluge of data has emerged in recent years detailing how boys and girls have different developmental trajectories and different brains. Sax has made a role for himself popularizing this work, though it’s not yet clear what the research means or whether there are implications for single-sex education. For instance, among neuroscientists, motor skills are often used as proxies for assessing cognitive skills and social and emotional control in younger children. As Martha Denckla, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neurology Clinic at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland, explained to me: “Looking at normal motor development in boys and girls — the ability to balance, to hop, to use your feet, to use your fingers and your hands — as a group, 5-year-old girls look almost completely the same as 6-year-old boys. The same is also true for anything having to do with speed of output: for example, how quickly you answer a question. Maybe you know the answer, but you just can’t prepare your mouth to form the words.” The gender gap in motor development shrinks through grammar and middle schools, Denckla says, disappearing once everyone has gone through puberty, around age 15. Yet Denckla doesn’t see any need for single-sex public education; she thinks mixed-grade K-1, 1-2 and 2-3 classrooms are a better way to deal with the developmental differences among school-age kids.

Education scholarship has contributed surprisingly little to the debate over single-sex public education. In 2005, the United States Department of Education, along with the American Institute for Research, tried to weigh in, publishing a meta-analysis comparing single-sex and coed schooling. The authors started out with 2,221 citations on the subject that they then whittled down to 40 usable studies. Yet even those 40 studies did not yield strong results: 41 percent favored single-sex schools, 45 percent found no positive or negative effects for either single-sex or coed schools, 6 percent were mixed (meaning they found positive results for one gender but not the other) and 8 percent favored coed schools. This meta-analysis is part of a larger project by the Department of Education being led by Cornelius Riordan, a Providence College professor. He explained to me that such muddled findings are the norm for education research on school effects. School-effects studies try to answer questions like whether large schools are better than small schools or whether charter schools are better than public schools. The effects are always small. So many variables are at play in a school: quality of teachers, quality of the principal, quality of the infrastructure, involvement of families, financing, curriculum — the list is nearly endless. Riordan says, “You’re never going to be able to compare two types of schools and say, ‘The data very strongly suggests that schools that look like a are better than schools that look like .’ ”