Monday, June 30, 1997

Sex-Segregated Schools: How Good Are They for Girls?

By Sarah Blustain 
Lilith Magazine -June 30, 1997
Sarah Blustain
Tenth grade, 1985. I have recently confessed the formal onset of puberty, though in fact that milestone was passed nearly a year ago. Down a school hallway lined with lockers, my closest friend, Alice, laughs as she juggles knapsack, coat and violin, chatting with a boy in our class. She is one of the most competent people I know and I am confused when she calls herself a "spaz" and lets him open her locker. It will be some years before I have a name for this: flirting. 

It is also this year that I-taking every advanced class-will decide with parents and guidance counselors not to take advanced calculus. It's strategy, we say. We don't expect that I'll do well in math, and a poor mark won't look so good on my transcript. 

I wonder, in these years, why the girls act dumb. I notice that they do not speak out in class. I see myself anxious not to speak out, and admire the boys who do: officers of our class, linchpins of the newspaper, leaders of protests to prevent teachers' firings, debaters in class discussions. I sometimes say I wish I were a boy. I am surprised when, despite our reticence, the top five graduates in my senior class are girls. 

These observations were not made in hindsight. They were not made with a coy nod at feminism. They were not even informed by the theories of Carol Gilligan, Myrna and David Sadker, Mary Pipher, the American Association of University Women and others who suggest that coeducationals school are ill-serving girls. 

But my experiences, and those of many other females, do appear prototypical in the research on girls in school, and they have found their way into the spotlight in both Jewish and secular educational arenas this year. Advocates have put it on the national agenda in the form of the federal Gender Equity in Education package. In Israel the High Court of Justice last fall ordered the Religious Affairs Ministry to eliminate funding discrimination against women's educational establishments. A conference on gender and Jewish day school education last winter in Boston drew several hundred educators and has spawned the publication of Gender Issues in Jewish Day School Education, due out this spring. And the National Coalition of Girls' Schools reports a membership of 86, up from 65 in 1992. 

The irony is that as questions of gender find a place on the cutting edge of educational theory, and as classes and schools devoted to girls' education are created throughout the United States, in the Orthodox educational world the reverse is true. Here, where schools have been primarily single-sex, educators concerned with girls' education from a traditional perspective have taken the "risky" step of teaching girls and boys in a coeducational setting. So at the same time that non-Orthodox and non-Jewish educators investigate the ways coed classes are failing girls, some traditional Jewish teachers are asserting that it is gender segregation that is hurting them. 

I began to revisit my own school experiences, when philanthropist Ann Tisch this year spurred the creation of New York City's first public single-sex schools for girls in more than a decade amidst the protests of boys' rights activists, civil libertarians and some long-time feminists. The Young Women's Leadership School, which opened its doors in East Harlem this year to serve middle-school girls who might otherwise fall through the cracks, was met with a barrage of media attention and a complaint filed with the Department of Education by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women claiming that the new school violates anti-discrimination laws. 

"If our research was gong anywhere, it wasn't toward advocating single-sex schools," asserts April Osajima, a senior associate at the AAUW, which has published numerous reports on girls in public schools that could provide ample evidence for the need for girls-only schools. It's an ironic response, but one that reflects the position of some feminist groups, including NOW, that single-sex schools do not prepare girls for the challenges of the real world. 

Susan Schlechter, an instructor and doctoral candidate at New York University who has researched issues of gender equity in the classroom, disagrees. The evidence, she says with a touch of humor, shows that "boys should go to co-ed institutions and girls should go to all-girls schools." 

This integrationist perspective, which claims that denizens of a coed world will only be well-adjusted by being socialized in a similar coed environment, poses a real challenge to the single-sex advocates. (Witness the severe adjustment difficulties that some young men at The Citadel experienced once women were admitted into their formerly all-male environment.) For Jewish girls in all-girls yeshivot, the question remains whether they will be able to translate the benefits they experience there as they operate in the coed world.
Women may learn to be assertive and articulate in an all-female setting, says Shulamit Elster, an assistant professor of Jewish education and director of programs in Jewish education at Baltimore Hebrew University. But "they don't do that in a mixed setting. . . . [There's] this whole notion that women can't be too wonderful at these things because they might be demeaning to men." 

Critics from other camps find fault with the research in the benefits of single-sex schools itself, claiming, among other things, that the data were not collected in a representative environment, and that findings are the result of misguided interpretation. Whitney Ransome, co-executive director of the Association of Girls Schools, a national organization, disagrees. "There's a hue and cry for statistics, numbers showing in a concrete way how girls are shortchanged, how they're not doing better than boys," she says, explaining away such criticisms. "[But] we value the stories of experience. . . . Out of that you have so many heads nodding [in agreement]." 

The Young Women's Leadership School in New York City has revived such questions in public debate: Are coeducational schools really short-changing their female students, as Myrna and David Sadker suggested in their 1994 book Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls? Do girls in coed schools really suffer from low self-esteem, teacher neglect, math and science phobia? Are they really undervalued in school? And if so, are single-sex schools the best way to address that? Do those schools prepare girls for life in a coeducational world? And do those schools without boys help educators, parents and boys develop a much-needed sensitivity to gender issues? 

Perhaps these questions are nowhere more relevant than in the sector of Jewish day schools, where gender and education are intimately entwined. Different educational standards, career expectations and religious mandates for girls and boys have traditionally guided much of Jewish pedagogy. 

"Teaching girls at the [high] level that girls are taught at today in yeshivas is a twentieth century development," explains Melissa Klapper, a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University studying vocational Jewish education in America. In the Old World, she says, girls may have received secular education in order to make a living, but Jewish education was essentially considered a male endeavor; girls learned what they needed to know in their mothers' kitchens. It wasn't until Sarah Schenirer started the Bais Yaakov movement in the late 19th century in Eastern Europe that Jewish communities began to consider seriously Jewish education for girls. The balance has tipped back and forth ever since. 

Today, however, in an era when women's issues have made inroads into almost every Jewish community-when feminist issues have penetrated the Orthodox community to such an extent that a conference on Orthodoxy and feminism, held in New York in February, could draw 1,000 people-questions of the education of girls can hardly be ignored. 

"I think that all the movements within Judaism that have schools are moving in the direction of more and more gender awareness and gender equity, including the Orthodox. Each one is doing it at its own pace," says Shulamit Reinharz, a professor of sociology and head of the Women's Studies program at Brandeis University. "It's extremely significant because Jewish day school attendance is on the rise." 

In the more liberal branches, schools are essentially all coeducational-progressive for Jewish education as single-sex schools are in the non-Jewish world. Reform and Conservative schools make efforts to pay attention to girls' needs in the classroom and out. Girls in the Conservative movement's Solomon Schechter schools, for instance, are invited-though not required-to wear a tallit at prayer. Coeducation in Jewish schools stems from the integrationist impulse that civil rights activists of 30 years ago fought to achieve in the public schools. 

It is in the Orthodox schools, particularly those on the liberal end of the spectrum, however, that the most controversy is brewing. It is here that single-sex education has been the norm. Many Orthodox men expect and are expected to continue studying for years after yeshiva. Most Orthodox women are not. And it is here that educators are being forced to choose: will they embrace coeducation as the only way to ensure equality, or will they cleave to the gender-segregated traditions? Will coeducation take them too far from tradition? Will the single-sex tradition prove too restrictive to be revised? 

"Single-sex education can be dangerous because it has been associated with different expectations," explains Devorah Steinmetz, founded of the Beit Rabban school, a coed Orthodox yeshiva in Manhattan. Steinmetz is one who falls clearly into the coed camp. A graduate of a coeducational Jewish day school herself, Steinmetz recalls that in fifth grade the boys began to study Gemara and the girls were asked to take their chairs to the back of the class. She wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the only major Jewish leader she had heard of, asking how any Jew could be denied access to the texts. 

By way of recourse, the young Steinmetz found her way in through the notes of some of her male friends, who let her copy their Gemara lessons after school. She was also encouraged, albeit quietly, by her teacher: One day, as she walked by his desk on her way out of class, he said to her, "No one can stop you from listening." 

In the traditional world, "separate is not equal," she says. "That's why I'm doing it this way [in my school]. The most important thing we can do is make sure we have the same offerings for boys and girls, and have the same expectations for boys and girls." 

But for Orthodox educators who believe in the traditional system, in which boys plan to study for years after yeshiva and girls are expected, once married, to tend to the home, the expectations are an essential reason to have gender-segregated education. As Melissa Klapper, who graduated from a girls yeshiva in Baltimore, explains it, "It's positive to have separate sex schools because the assumption is that the roles will be different [once they grow up]." 

Esther Krauss is the principal of Ma'ayanot, an Orthodox girls' school that opened in Teaneck, N.J., this year for 26 ninth grade girls. The community decided to open a girls' school, she says, because "traditionally that is the best model for what we would like to achieve, and that is a well-rounded, deeply committed Jew." 

Within that structure, however, Krauss and other educators of Orthodox girls must maintain a delicate balance in their school's focus. With Orthodox women in some communities receiving a very good higher secular education-including advanced degrees-the possibility arises that these women draw away from Orthodoxy because their Jewish lives haven't kept up with their secular opportunities. So on the one hand, Kraus is devoted to running "an all-girls high school that would make all areas of Judaic studies accessible and that would be excellent and enable them to go on to any college career goals that they had." But on the other, she must emphasize the girls distaff duties, "Somewhere along the way, where I come from, clearly there is a priority on the home," she says. 

So why gear these girls to college and careers? Why tempt them away from their domestic roles? She laughs. "I've always believed in living dangerously," she says. "I have faith in the tradition that I teach here, and I have faith that the tradition can withstand those challenges." 

Perhaps to reinforce their faith in the single-sex system, these traditionalists have incorporated the language of progressive single-sex pedagogy into their speech. "That girls do benefit through separate education I think there is no doubt," says Rivka Blau, who runs the all-girls, Orthodox Shevach high school in Queens. "It wouldn't work so well if I had boys there. I'm gearing it toward empowering girls Jewishly, . . . letting them know that they can be leaders in the community." 

Krauss agrees. "I think that girls do develop better, religiously and secularly, and have chances to be their own people and take leadership positions and feel comfortable expressing their opinions in an all-girl environment." She cites the importance of role-models, the benefits from having no male distractions, the possibilities of leadership-all trademark notions of the secular argument for all-girls schools. 

Some educators verge on calling this kind of talk mere rhetoric and are dubious that all-girls Jewish schools are offering anything more than excuses to maintain the status quo. "I would be surprised if the reason that is being giving to you really has to do with creating conditions for the girls to excel. I think it is creating conditions for them to accept . . . that there are certain roles," says Elaine Cohen, educational director of the United Talmud Torah Schools, a collective of four coeducational, multi-denominational, Orthodox-oriented schools in Montreal. "Given the history of [discrimination in] Jewish tradition, I think it is important for them to study coed." 

Summer camp, 1985. I have found my way to a job as a counselor-in-training at an all-girls camp. During the summer I drag my way through Pilgrim's Progress and a tiny-print version of Washington Square in preparation for my 11th grade English class. The girls I work with tease me gently. They also teach me fascinating beauty secrets: how to hold a razor when you shave, and the best time to cut your toenails. We are unembarrassed about our bodies, unafraid to show affection, eager to be smart and capable and loving all at once. I will not fully understand this experience for years, but it comes to mind whenever educators say that girls need to develop their voices away from boys. 

But I also understand that those around me-other CIT's, counselors, and campers, of course-wanted me to have a voice, actively looked for it even when I was shy. I understand that without their encouragement, albeit unconscious, even the all-girls context would not have mattered. It is the attitude behind the structure that really made the difference. 

"I think it is so interconnected," says Janna Kaplan about traditional Judaism's impact on girls. Kaplan, a research scientist in experimental psychology at Brandeis University and a co-organizer of last year's Gender Issues in Jewish Day School Education conference, believes that "one may not be able to pinpoint the exact connection between the degree of empowerment girls (or boys) derive from the [biblical] text study, and their performance in math, for example. But I think that on a very subtle level, these things are interconnected."
Which is what traditional Jewish schools may be able to teach those on the cutting edge of secular single-sex education: that simply creating a school for girls is not enough; that even offering a rigorous course of study isn't enough. Just as the simple act of integrating girls into co-ed schools has not been enough. That a certain feminism-or at least awareness-must guide the school. 

It's a lesson that these Jewish girls' schools must learn themselves. At the Orthodox yeshiva she attended in Baltimore, Melissa Klapper tells me that school administrators and teachers "had to walk a tightrope between the parents who wanted their girls to learn calculus and the parents who only wanted their girls to learn to bake challah." The first step will be understanding that baking challah has no place in a discussion of the education of girls. 

Sarah Blustain is Associate Editor of LILITH Magazine.

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