Rutter: One-gender schools might answer the wrong question

The 2016 graduating class at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest is currently Lake County's only single-gender school.

Some experimental ideas seem plausible and attractive on their face.

One-gender public schools are like that. Why not separate girls and boys from each other educationally at the very time when their proximity is upsetting to both genders? After all, they are so different as to defy common ground.


The ultimate point of one-gender schools is one outcome: Produce students superior to what co-education would allow.

That American experiment is not new, but Waukegan and North Chicago would be home to new one-gender schools if advocates convince school boards in both locales to say yes.


My guess is that both boards will say no, and then the state will decide the merits of the appeal.

But before the process starts in earnest for a 2017 launch, it's worthwhile to note the rules.

They would be charter schools that skim operating budgets from the property tax pool that normally goes to hometown public schools. North Chicago already has two co-ed charter schools, and Waukegan has one.

Though charter schools always pose themselves as more efficient, more productive "choices" for parents, each nick off the public school enrollment takes money away from institutions we've always proclaimed as the pillars of the nation. It's not only where we develop scholars. It's where we grow sound citizens linked by common ideas and shared values.

We do not know the moment at which the tilting financial fulcrum diminishes traditional public schools enough to cause harm. The measurement only works if we trade a flawed but fixable public system for a massed network of essentially private-style schools for profit.

The proponents of charter schools seldom believe in the mission enough to pay for it themselves or raise the necessary money from like-minded enthusiasts. It's often easier to convince public officials to pay, because it's not their money, either.

Your ideas that cost lots of money are always more attractive if someone else pays.

But if public schools feel under threat these days, it's because they are. Motives range from good-hearted civic entrepreneurism to greed. Public schools have invited the encroachment with decades of rigid underperformance.


Tara Thomas, the North Shore Prep Foundation's executive director and driving force for local one-gender schools, says she's not competing with local schools, but, of course, that's the exact nature of the relationship.

Thomas will submit a formal application to Waukegan District 60. The district initially would supply 100 students through a lottery, 50 boys for the all-boys school and 50 girls for the all-girls school, for its first classes. Another 100 students, also 50 boys and 50 girls, would come from North Chicago Community Unit School District 187, she said.

Thomas has personal history in Michigan with one-gender schools, and she says they work. She is an enthusiast. But her experience is largely personal, because her three sons attended a private academy. She seeks to broaden that experience to students who'd never get that chance in high-standard "safe" schools without her project.

The most ardent single-gender school advocates often are inspired by personal anecdotal experience. But that is not real evidence.

One-gender schools are not a new idea, and the evidence of their success generally mirrors all charter schools. Some work. Some don't. Some improve education. Some don't. Some are more efficient. Some are merely more profitable for the owner who takes a slice of tax money that otherwise would be invested in the public school.

But what decades of academic study tend to show is that the interpersonal relationships of small classes and intense mentoring have more to do with success than gender. Or gender segregation.


There are nearly 80 single-sex public schools in the United States, up from just a handful three decades ago.

So, how's it working?

In 2014, researchers Erin Pahlke, Janet Shibley Hyde and Carlie M. Allison published a meta-analysis of all existing studies on single-sex instruction. Their exhaustive review found no significant statistical advantage, for boys or girls, over co-education.

Yes, there are some terrific boys-only and girls-only public schools. But are they great schools because they are single-sex? The evidence suggests not.

Research shows that successful schools share common traits — strong mentoring relationships and keeping class size manageable. Those benefit students whether boys and girls learn together or apart.

It might be true that the solution Thomas proposes will produce inventive education because of small class sizes and personalized instruction.


But maybe gender was never the question.

David Rutter was an editor for 40 years at six newspapers.