Single-sex education (teaching boys and girls in separate classrooms or schools) is an old approach that’s gaining new momentum. While single-sex education has long existed in many private schools, it’s a relatively new option for public schools. The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education estimates that approximately 400 public schools now offer some form of single-sex education. What is fueling this movement? And what are the risks and benefits of single-sex education?
A driving force in the single-sex education movement is recent research showing natural differences in how males and females learn. Putting this research into practice, however, has triggered a debate that extends beyond pure academics. Political, civil rights, socioeconomic and legal concerns also come into play. As the debate heats up, it helps to understand all sides of the issue.
Nature vs. nurture
Before weighing the pros and cons of single-sex education, consider the influences of “nature versus nurture.” Many factors affect each child’s learning profile and preferences:
- Some factors relate to the child’s nature, such as gender, temperament, abilities (and disabilities), and intelligence.
- Other influences stem from the way parents and society nurture the child: Family upbringing, socioeconomic status, culture and stereotypes all fall under the “nurture” category.
According to Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, “…whenever girls and boys are together, their behavior inevitably reflects the larger society in which they live.” Depending on one’s point of view, this statement can trigger arguments both for and against single-sex education.
Making the case for single-sex education
Those who advocate for single-sex education in public schools argue that:
- Some parents don’t want their children to be in mixed-gender classrooms because, especially at certain ages, students of the opposite sex can be a distraction.
- Leonard Sax and others agree that merely placing boys in separate classrooms from girls accomplishes little. But single-sex education enhances student success when teachers use techniques geared toward the gender of their students.
- Some research indicates that girls learn better when classroom temperature is warm, while boys perform better in cooler classrooms. If that’s true, then the temperature in a single-sex classroom could be set to optimize the learning of either male or female students.
- Some research and reports from educators suggest that single-sex education can broaden the educational prospects for both girls and boys. Advocates claim co-ed schools tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, while single-sex schools can break down gender stereotypes. For example, girls are free of the pressure to compete with boys in male-dominated subjects such as math and science. Boys, on the other hand, can more easily pursue traditionally “feminine” interests such as music and poetry. One mother, whose daughter has attended a girls-only school for three years, shared her experience on the GreatSchools parent community: “I feel that the single gender environment has given her a level of confidence and informed interest in math and science that she may not have had otherwise.”
- Federal law supports the option of single-sex education. In 2006, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings eased federal regulations, allowing schools to offer single-sex classrooms and schools, as long as such options are completely voluntary. This move gives parents and school districts greater flexibility.
What critics say about single-sex education
Those who claim single-sex education is ineffective and/or undesirable make the following claims:
- Few educators are formally trained to use gender-specific teaching techniques. However, it’s no secret that experienced teachers usually understand gender differences and are adept at accommodating a variety of learning styles within their mixed-gender classrooms.
- Gender differences in learning aren’t the same across the board; they vary along a continuum of what is considered normal. For a sensitive boy or an assertive girl, the teaching style promoted by advocates of single-sex education could be ineffective (at best) or detrimental (at worst). For example, a sensitive boy might be intimidated by a teacher who “gets in his face” and speaks loudly believing “that’s what boys want and need to learn.”
- Students in single-sex classrooms will one day live and work side-by-side with members of the opposite sex. Educating students in single-sex schools limits their opportunity to work cooperatively and co-exist successfully with members of the opposite sex.
- At least one study found that the higher the percentage of girls in a co-ed classroom, the better the academic performance for all students (both male and female). Professor Analia Schlosser, an economist from the Eitan Berglas School of Economics at Tel Aviv, found that elementary school, co-ed classrooms with a majority of female students showed increased academic performance for both boys and girls. In high school, the classrooms with the best academic achievement were consistently those that had a higher percentage of girls. Dr. Schlosser theorizes that a higher percentage of girls lowers the amount of classroom disruption and fosters a better relationship between all students and the teacher.
- The American Council on Education reports that there is less academic disparity between male and female students overall and a far greater achievement gap between students in different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, with poor and minority students children faring poorly. Bridging that academic chasm, they argue, deserves more attention than does the gender divide.
- Single-sex education is illegal and discriminatory, or so states the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) . In May 2008, the ACLU filed suit in federal court, arguing that Breckinridge County Middle School’s (Kentucky) practice of offering single-sex classrooms in their public school is illegal and discriminatory. The school doesn’t require any child to attend a single-sex class, yet the suit argues that the practice violates several state and federal laws, including Title IX and the equal Educational Opportunities Act.
Measuring public perception
How does the general public view single-sex education? To answer that question, Knowledge Networks conducted a nationwide survey in early 2008. (Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University sponsored the survey.) Survey results indicate:
- More than one-third of Americans feel parents should have the option of sending their child to a single-sex school. (25% of respondents oppose the idea.)
- Yet when asked if they’d consider a single-sex school for their own children, only 14% said they “definitely would” and 28% said they “probably would.”
The fact remains that there are relatively few single-sex schools in our nation’s public education system, and where they do exist, they are offered as an option rather than a requirement. If the single-sex education movement continues, you may find yourself in a position to vote for or against it in your own community.
Share on Pinterest
NEA Reviews of the Research on Best Practices in Education
Found In: teaching strategies
If you walked into the average public school classroom in the United States, you'd find an equal number of boys and girls. But some experts suggest it may be time for a change.
Single-gender education and the often-spirited dialogue surrounding it have raised a number of issues concerning the best manner to educate boys and girls.
In 1993, American University professors Myra Sadker and David Sadker published their research in Failing in Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, which describes striking discoveries about fairness in American schools. During a three-year study, trained observers visited more than 100 elementary school classrooms in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, and the District of Columbia and noted student-teacher interactions, including the following:
- Boys called out eight times as often as girls did. When a boy yelled out, the teacher ignored the "raise your hand" rule and usually praised his contribution. Girls who called out got reminders to raise their hands.
- Teachers valued boys' comments more than girls' comments. Teachers responded to girls with a simple nod or an OK, but they praised, corrected, helped, and criticized boys.
- Boys were encouraged to solve problems on their own, but teachers helped girls who were stuck on problems.
Male dominance in the classroom may come as no surprise to advocates of single-gender education who suggest that boys and girls are regularly treated differently in coeducational settings and that both boys and girls could both benefit from single-gender classrooms. Studies suggest that when boys are in single-gender classrooms, they are more successful in school and more likely to pursue a wide range of interests and activities.
Girls who learn in all-girl environments are believed to be more comfortable responding to questions and sharing their opinions in class and more likely to explore more “nontraditional” subjects such as math, science, and technology. In addition, advocates believe that when children learn with single-gender peers, they are more likely to attend to their studies, speak more openly in the classroom, and feel more encouraged to pursue their interests and achieve their fullest potential.
Of course, these beliefs have been challenged as well. The American Association of University Women published Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls (1998), which notes that single-sex education is not necessarily better than coeducation. According to the report, boys and girls thrive on a good education, regardless of whether the school is single-sex or coeducational. Some findings include:
- No evidence shows that single-sex education works or is better for girls than coeducation.
- When elements of a good education are present—such as small classes and schools, equitable teaching practices, and focused academic curriculum—girls and boys succeed.
- Some kinds of single-sex programs produce positive results for some students, including a preference for math and science among girls.
Additional research on the effectiveness of single-gender classrooms is necessary, but we all can agree that we need to construct an educational environment that meets the social and intellectual needs of boys and girls.
Here are two additional studies from the current research on single-gender education:
- Is Single-Gender Schooling Viable in the Public Sector? Lessons from California’s Pilot Program( PDF, 402 KB, 83pp)
This report provides a good background and review of the literature with a broad assessment of where research stands on the controversy. It covers a pilot program in California, the nation's biggest pilot project, a project that was subsequently shut down. This report presents the findings of a three-year case study of an experiment of single-gender schools with the public sector. It provides a thorough analysis of the topic and examines future directions for single gender school reform program. Amanda Datnow et al., 2001.
- The Evidence Suggests Otherwise: The Truth About Boys and Girls ( PDF, 363 KB, 21pp
"The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse; it's good news about girls doing better. In fact, with a few exceptions, American boys are scoring higher and achieving more than they ever have before. But girls have just improved their performance on some measures even faster. As a result, girls have narrowed or even closed some academic gaps that previously favored boys, while other long-standing gaps that favored girls have widened, leading to the belief that boys are falling behind. There's no doubt that some groups of boys—particularly Hispanic and black boys and boys from low-income homes—are in real trouble. But the predominant issues for them are race and class, not gender. Closing racial and economic gaps would help poor and minority boys more than closing gender gaps, and focusing on gender gaps may distract attention from the bigger problems facing these youngsters. The hysteria about boys is partly a matter of perspective. While most of society has finally embraced the idea of equality for women, the idea that women might actually surpass men in some areas (even as they remain behind in others) seems hard for many people to swallow. Thus, boys are routinely characterized as 'falling behind' even as they improve in absolute terms." Sara Mead, Education Sector (2006).