(June 23, 1998)

The news from the American Association of University Women that single-sex education is no better for girls than coeducation caused quite a stir among parents this spring. Since 1992 we had been relying on an earlier AAUW report that said girls were shortchanged by coed schools, especially in math and science. We also knew of Mary Pipher’s “Reviving Ophelia” and Peggy Ornstein’s “School Girls,” best sellers about the loss of self-esteem many girls face in adolescence. All of this evidence had caused even life-long public school advocates, including me, to consider girls’ schools for our daughters.

I remember well the pain and conflicts of adolescence. In seventh grade I told my mother, “The boys wouldn’t like me if I ran for student body president.” That didn’t keep me from doing well academically, though Chemistry was a struggle. I wasn’t discouraged from technology — my father even thought I’d make a terrific mathematician. I just preferred arts to sciences.

So it came as no shock when my first daughter, now in seventh grade herself, was especially verbal. She talked earlier than most boys, and when she learned to read, that was a snap, too. Her father and I helped her with her “math facts” (as they are called) in elementary school, but she would rather have been reading or on the stage. When the time came to consider applying to an all-girl school for sixth grade, she would have nothing of it. I told her I expected her to show the same assertiveness to her teachers and the boys in her classes. Indeed she has.

Her two younger sisters have a knack for math. Still, my current fifth grader did not want to apply to a traditional girls’ school or to the new, technology-oriented middle school for girls. I didn’t push, but part of me still worried, are we doing what’s best for her?

I think so. Parents should be aware of educational research, but they shouldn’t let so-called expert opinion — fluid as it is — outweigh parental instinct about individual children. We should also consider the societal implications of abandoning public schools, where most girls — and boys — are educated. Better, insist on gender-fair instruction and equal access in all subjects: math, science, and even English and drama.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.