Third of a three-part series.
So much of this discussion is based on non-halakhic but public policy attitudes. It also has to consider the role of da’as Torah. How binding are the non-halakhic rulings of rabbinic authorities? How much room is there for individual interpretation and autonomy? Where do we draw the line? These questions are being hotly debated both here and in Israel and impact directly on our topic.
When I was a principal, I brought leading roshei yeshiva and gedolim to visit my school, which was co-ed. Classes were separated for limudei kodesh in grades 6, 7, and 8. My purpose was two-fold. I wanted these rabbinic leaders to see what was actually taking place in day schools and I also wanted my students to see what a European rosh yeshiva looked like. Rav Simcha HaKohen Kook exemplified the Israeli rabbinate, and the hadras panim of Rav Dovid Lifschitz, zt”l made a most profound impression as a traditional European Litvishe rov. What became clear to me over many years was that leading rabbonim whose students run schools all around the country had no real understanding of the day-school community nor of the issues they faced. When the students rose to greet Rav Lifschitz and recited in unison the blessing upon seeing a great Torah scholar, he was impressed. He asked me if the students knew humash and was treated to a 5th-grade humash shiur with meforshim by a master pedagogue, Rabbi Joseph Reifman. He was further overwhelmed by a seventh-grade gemara shiur in Hebrew led by Rabbi Harvey Horn. He really didn’t know what to expect.
I was privileged to interact with members of the Moetzet Gedolei haTorah of the Agudas HaRabbonim prior to their attendance at the annual Torah UMesorah conference, to review in advance some Q&A topics. These were the leaders who established policies and procedures for Torah UMesorah schools. There too it became clear that these rabbis’ very limited knowledge of day schools was based strictly on the filtered views of their closest students. I seriously question if any of these great rabbis actually visited day schools. How else can we explain the following exchange: [Question from an out-of-town principal] “We just started a day school in our community and have very few students. We can’t afford separate classes. What can we do? [Answer by Rav Yaakov Weinberg, z”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael on behalf of his colleagues] “Better they should go to public school than attend a co-ed day school.” The audience was momentarily stunned, and then the Q&A broke up for mincha.
I understand this approach but know in my heart that this does not apply in all situations. A more viable approach may have been to suggest separating only for limudei kodesh. At this point it should be clear that we are not talking about schools in the Hasidic-haredi-yeshivish orbit. Although many principals may come from this milieu, the schools and communities they represent are clearly not in this community.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l the foremost halakhic authority of the last century, ruled that schools ought to have separate classes for boys and girls. Boys and girls must be in separate buildings while they are studying. The only exception permitted is for the very young when financial strain might result in no school at all for girls. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, no less an authority, actually ran a school—which was co-ed. Res ipsa loquitur.
Jewish day schools, and indeed all institutions, communicate values both explicitly and implicitly. It is sometimes those values that are not stated openly, that are seemingly taken for granted, that are actually the most important. Instead of teaching how to respect the opposite sex, they just pretend they do not exist.
Leading social scientists conclude that academic achievement is not superior in single-sex schools after controlling for qualities of children at entry (for example, socioeconomic status) and programs (demanding curriculums, for instance). Single-sex education fails to produce academic benefits and inflates gender stereotyping.
Additionally, based on voluminous research of the negative effects of separating people into groups, single-sex classrooms would likely generate and exacerbate stereotyping and sexist attitudes. Rather than promoting gender segregation, schools should be striving to teach a diverse body of students to work together and to respect each other.
For nearly a decade, proponents of single-sex schooling have argued that boys and girls differ so fundamentally in brain functioning, sensory abilities, interests, stress responsiveness, and more that they cannot be taught effectively in the same classrooms. However, scientific data do not support these claims, and, indeed, many single-sex advocates have recently backed away from them. Nonetheless, such advocates have already trained hundreds of teachers in mythic “gender-specific learning styles” that make a mockery of the legal requirement to eliminate sex discrimination in schools.
Single-sex schooling has nothing to do with a school’s success. Educational practitioners must use scientifically based research to guide their decisions about which interventions to implement. Anecdotes do not meet this standard but are frequently used to support single-sex schooling. If modern science has learned anything, it is to be highly skeptical of anecdotes. The preponderance of scientific evidence indicates that single-sex education fails to produce academic benefits and inflates gender stereotyping.
In attempting to improve schools, it is critical to remember that not all reforms lead to meaningful gains for students. We argue that one change in particular—sex-segregated education—is deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence. Yes, there is tradition, but there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, while there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.
The problem won’t go away. Schools that are perceived to be “frum” are not co-ed. The system works if everyone remains within that system and within that world. It is a slippery slope for the Modern Orthodox. Where do we draw the line? It may be less problematic in elementary school, but in high school it becomes a serious issue. Too often, a co-ed environment fosters a very social atmosphere that places pressures on students in many areas. These pressures may indeed negatively affect student learning. I am still conflicted. My children attended non-coed high schools, but the experience of coed summer camps and a coed NCSY provided the necessary balance.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He has taught children, teens, and adults. He was a college professor, day-school principal, and director of two central agencies for Jewish education, including our own community’s Jewish Educational Services, for over a decade. He is the founder of the Sinai School, and has received many prestigious awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lifshitz College of Education in Jerusalem and The World Council on Torah Judaism. He is currently a consultant to schools, non-profit organizations, The International March of The Living, and serves as Executive Secretary of The Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship Fund. He can be reached at [email protected]
By Wallace Greene