Coed Woodberry?

Nam Bui ’19 and Javon Darrien ’19

“We live in an all-boy school, not a monastery. There’s a difference.” – a friend exclaimed at a debate tournament when people chuckled at his all-boys education. 

At Woodberry, any questions or doubts regarding single sex education are usually left behind on invite-back weekend. Yet then and now, somebody may entertain an idea of having girls as their classmates and teammates. If you believe that things can change, you might be right.

The research is mixed on the effectiveness of single-sex education. Proponents like Cambridge University researchers reported that single-sex classes improved boys’ performances in English and foreign languages. Others say because boys and girls’ brains develop at different rate, as well as their differences in learning styles, single-sex schools can emphasize faculties and programs that better meet the needs of one gender group. Some are concerned about teenage pregnancy and want to increase the graduation rate by eliminating the social interactions (or “distractions” as they might be called) between boys and girls.

The trend toward single-sex public schools has been growing. In 2006, the Department of Education fulfilled a call to action of No Child Left Behind law by allowing school districts to create single-sex schools. This law had managed to work despite Title IX because the single-sex classes offered must be voluntary and the districts must make sure the excluded sex has access to the coeducational schools of equal quality. By 2008, there were 48 single-sex public schools in operation compared to 2 schools in 1995, according to the New York Times.

However, in private schools, where single-sex education has existed much longer, we see the opposite trend. A 2014 census by the Independent School Council showed a sharp decline in single-sex schools and a long-term “shift towards co-education.” In particular, between 1994 and 2014, the number of boys’ schools dropped from 230 to just over 100 and number of girls’ school declined from 230 to 150. Although Woodberry has admitted only boys (along with a few faculty daughters) since its creation in 1889, it’s the time for us to critically ask whether we need to stay single sex. The reasons may vary, but we can certainly look at academic research as a guide to reevaluate the role played by, or lack thereof, single-sex education in us achieving our standards and values. 

Alternative and fair researchers have debunked the myths toward the effectiveness of single-sex education. The single-sex advocates may have fallen into the trap of confirmation bias by not accounting for other factors such as family income, race, or schools’ length. Even though public sentiments may believe that single-sex schools achieve better academic performances, “the science is just not there to support this,” said Richard Fabes, an author of the Science article called The pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling. After conducting large-scale review of schools in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, Fabes and his colleagues found little difference between single-sexed and mixed-sex academic outcomes. Other researchers like Rebecca Bigler and Lise Eliot explained that there is much more differences among individuals than between the two sexes. That is, boys differ more among each other than they differ from girls and vice versa. The single-sex schools’ claim to create the best “teaching method” applied for each gender is therefore rather hypocritical and ignorant. Instead of creating a diverse community and promoting gender equality for students to learn from one another, Woodberry may be doing the opposite.

The consequences are great, especially the nurture of gender stereotyping or sexism. Even though Woodberry aims to train its boys to become ‘real gentlemen,’ it’s not too uncommon to find people using words as “chick” or other forms of reprehensible language to refer to their Snapchat cutie or semi-formal date. The problem is not the act itself – for it would happen regardless of place. The problem is the tribal thinking which gender stereotyping can create and single-sex schooling can reinforce. When to speak out against gender stereotyping and sexist behavior can bring one in conflict with what novelist C.W Lewis called “The Inner Ring,” the social pressure to be a part of the “brotherhood” may have become too great. In other words, when to fit in one must conform to the behaviors proscribed by the Inner Ring, and the Inner Ring happens to promote sexist behavior, we have a problem in our hands. Single-sex education may well be fostering this group-think, and thus damaging our worth as a community. 

Co-education, in turn, brings more diversity and opportunities to our students. English teacher Kristyn Wilson claimed that having a co-ed Woodberry would be academically beneficial. There seems, she says, to be almost a monopoly on the opinions regarding topics that men and women would have conflicting opinions on. For example, almost all students in her class have relatively homologous opinions regarding Montana 1948, a book that deals on sexual harassment and assault. Ms. Wilson claims that this can be difficult for her to discuss and bring out the contradicting side without appearing that she’s giving out the “right answer.” The paradox should not be unique to Ms. Wilson’s English class. There are historical problems regarding the sexes in History classes that would have more fruitful and balanced conversations if girls were able to participate. On the student perspective, Javon Darrien ‘19 confesses that his “conversations with girls” at the Student Diversity Leadership Conference helped him see the perspectives that we don’t often see at Woodberry. 

Some people may say that single-sex education is what “makes the school.” There’s certainly no doubt that Woodberry is a unique school. But it’s unique in many different, important ways that do not necessarily depend on our all-boyness.  For example, here one may drink the blushing sunset, crisscross the fine Upper Snake trail on bike wheels, taste the sour-sweet of the pawpaw fruit that Mr. Reid collects, or be awed at the number of geese at Robertson lake on one suddenly warm late December afternoon. Here one may never forget Mr. Hale’s English class–or Dr. Erb’s, Mr. Amos’s, Reimers’–simply because they much impact us too much. Here one feels small in the supportive fraternity, yet feels big as man at the same time. Parents send their kids here because Woodberry is a wonderful school, a fact largely independent of its all-boys education. If we make the school co-ed, we won’t destroy the “brotherhood,” but rather strengthen it by helping it become more genteel in a more diverse culture. The traditions of over a hundred years won’t be lost, but rather be enriched by new elements.


The views expressed in this article do not, in any way, represent the views of the editorial board, our faculty adviser, Mr. Guldin, nor the opinion of The Oracle as a whole.

Categories: Opinion

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