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Does Single-Gender Education Help Students? Pros and Cons

Updated on April 4, 2013
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Single-gender, or single-sex, education is not a new concept. Just as contemporary fashion styles sometimes mimic the fads of the past, single-gender education was once popular, then fell from popularity, and is now making an aggressive return. Up until the early 1970s, single-sex classrooms within coeducational schools were considered appropriate. It was common to see males and females attending different types of courses on subjects that were deemed gender-appropriate, such as home economics or shop. Legislative actions in the 1970s made gender-specific education illegal, but recent legislative changes have trended back towards single-gender education. Today's single-gender classes are very different from earlier single-gender classes and have different educational emphases from their predecessors.

While modern advocates of single-gender education are quick to point out its alleged benefits, the hard evidence supporting the efficacy single-gender education leaves something to be desired. In fact, much of the evidence is contradictory! Ultimately, all the research conclusively indicates that all students benefit from highly-trained teachers and effective education, whether they are in a single-gender or coeducational classroom.

Did you attend a single-gender school or class?

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Reasons for Single-Gender Education

As stated above, single-gender education was common practice through most of the 20th century. Students typically attended coeducational schools, but were separated for specific course. While students were separated for gender-specific classes, they spent most of the day studying together. Classes like math, English, and science were almost always coeducational (Pollard). This type of single-gender education was outlawed in 1972 by Title IX, which emphasizes coeducation at all times. Title IX effectively prevented most single-gender education in public schools. However, single-gender education maintained popularity at private schools, particularly Parochial schools. Recently, some schools have challenged Title IX and the prohibition on single-gender education. As of 2006, Federal law has allowed public schools to, once gain, offer single-sex classrooms and schools, as long as participation is voluntary (Stanberry). Also, boys and girls must learn the same set of state standards, take the same assessments, must have the option to enroll in an identical, co-educational class, and the single-gender program must be reevaluated ever two years (Chadwell).

There are two main, and opposing, educational philosophies driving single-gender education today. Advocates of single-gender education are split between believing that boys and girls are essentially different and believing that the two are basically the same, but have different social experiences and social needs (Weil).

Single-Gender Education for Girls

Until recent years, emphasis was mostly placed on helping girls reach their full potential by means of single-gender education. Since the 1990s, concerns about how boys and girls act around members of the opposite sex, particularly around puberty, have also fueled the desire to separate students by gender. These concerns were popularized in the 1990s by works such as the American Association of University Women's “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America” (Wiel).

Emily Wylie, a teacher at The Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem, one of the most famous public girls' schools, advocates separating the genders for social reasons. Many all female schools, private and public, follow this philosophy. In Wylie's words, they aim “to create all these strong girls who will then go out into the world and be astonished when people try to oppress them” (Wylie in Weil). These schools are frequently ridiculed because they do not live up to the recent focus on action research and scientifically-proven curriculum. They attract the criticism of researchers like Sax who claim that schools like TYWLS are stuck in 1970s feminism and, therefor, do no accomplish as much as they could if they based their pedagogy on recent research (Weil).

Interview with Leonard Sax

Sax's well-known book on boys educational difficulties.

Single Gender Education for Boys

Advocates of the 'essential differences' school of thought believe that males and females are biologically and cognitively different. Leonard Sax, a family physician who has become one of the modern era’s most outspoken single-gender education advocates, states that biological differences between males and females can have far-reaching educational consequences. For example, Sax's writings indicate that there are differences between how boys and girls see and hear. He believes that boys' retinas are designed to track movement while girls' retinas are designed to noticed detail and color variation. Additionally, girls are born with a keener sense of hearing that is particularly adept at picking up higher-pitched noises (Sax, 2006). Sax also asserts that boys and girls respond differently to stress. Sax believes that stress triggers strong sympathetic nervous system responses in boys, but strong parasympathetic nervous response systems in girls. In other words, stress is more likely to cause a fight-or-flight, adrenaline-based response, which can turn violent, in boys; girls' parasympathetic nervous system releases the neurotransmitter acetlycholine, which causes mental slowing and a feeling of dizziness (Sax, 2005). Therefor, when faced with the same stressful situation, a male might respond aggressively while a girl might respond in a more subdued manner. Additional research indicates that males and females may use different parts of the brain when encoding memories (Heins, et al).

If you, or your child, attended single-gender classes or a single-gender school, did you find it helpful?

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The Evidence Against Single-Gender Education

While many studies do demonstrate academic and social achievement as a result of single-gender education, some speculate that the improvements seen in both boys and girls in single-gender classes are not from gender separation, but from the additional training the teachers receive in preparation for the single-gender programs. Evidence suggests that small classes and schools, equitable teaching practices, and a focused academic curriculum result in better performance in all classrooms, single-gender and coeducational (NEA). Therefore, the relationship between single-gender education and higher achievement might be mere correlation, not an actual causation.

Additionally, not all students self-report improvements after experiencing single-gender education. A recent study of urban 9th graders asked students in single-gender and mixed-gender science and mathematics to rate themselves on academic self-concept, self-efficacy, and school perceived school climate. These perceptions were measured quantitatively using the Fennema-Sherman Mathematics Attitude and the Patterns of Adaptive Learning scales, and the test was modified to measure the science students, too. Overall, each group of students was measured on five different dimensions, but no statistically significant differences were found between the students experiencing single-gender education and mixed-gender education (Brown, et al).

Not only did some students report no lack of improvement due to single-sex education, but at least one study shows that single-sex education can have detrimental social effects. Particularly when conducted at the secondary, or high school, level, single-sex education may make gender roles more narrow and rigid. One study conducted with females from single-sex and coeducational environments revealed no significant differences between the frequencies of eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, or gender role concerns. However, the study did reveal that girls from a same-sex educational environment “endorsed a thinner ideal body type” than girls from a coeducational environment (Bigler, et al).

Not only is single-sex educational potentially socially harmful, but coeducation might actually be academically beneficial. Further evidence against gender-segregation in the classroom comes from studies demonstrating that all students benefit from a female presence in the classroom: at least one study shows that, the higher the percentage of girls in a classroom, the higher everyone's performance will be (Stanberry).

The accuracy and significance of studies proclaiming the benefits of single-gender education are debatable. According to the Department of Education, none of the studies on single-gender education submitted to date were conducted in an appropriately scientific, experimental manner and could not be used do conduct an actual meta-analysis (Alonso, et al). In spite of these studies' lack of scientific relevance, pro-single-gender education groups are quick to pounce of the information an publish it as undisputed gospel.

Is Single-Gender Education Better?

Ultimately, the choice to attend a single-gender school or class should be up to the student and his or her parents. Some children do thrive in the single-gender classroom, but same-sex education is not a magical panacea for poor academic performance or social ills. Some people cite their all girl or all boy schooling as the single greatest, positive influence in their life, but others perform worse in a single-gender environment.

Did you attend a single-gender class/school? Do your children? I'd love to hear your opinions on same-sex education!

References

Alonso, A., Gibson, D., Mael, F., Rogers, K., & Smith, M. (2005). Single-sex versus coeducational schooling: A systematic review. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service. Retrieved Novemeber 24, 2012 from http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/single-sex/single-sex.pdf.

American Association of University Women. (1992, October). “How schools shortchange girls.” Education Digest, 58, 41-45.

Chadwell, D, & Rex, J. (2009, September). Single-gender classrooms. School Administrator, 66 (8), 28-33.

National Education Association. “NEA Spotlight on Single Gender Education.”

Pollard, D. . “Single-Sex Education.” WEEA Digest, WEEA Publishing Center. October, 1999.

Sax, L. (2006). Six degrees of separation: What teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences. Educational Horizons, 190-200.

Sax, L. (2005). Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences. New York: Doubleday.

Stanberry, Kristin. “Single-Sex Education: The Pros and Cons” greatschools.org.

Weil, Elizabeth. “Teaching Boys and Girls Separately” The New York Times Magazine, March 2, 2008 .

Heins, E., Piechura-Couture, K., & Heins, E. (2011, December). The boy factor: Can single-gender classes reduce the over-representation of boys in special education? Journal of Instructional Psychology, 38(4), 255-263.

Brown, S., Ronau, R. (2012, February). Students' perceptions of single-gender science and mathematics classroom experiences. School Science & Mathematics, 112(2), 66-87.Bigler, R., & Signorella, M. (2011, July). Single-sex Education: New perspectives and evidence on a continuing controversy. Sex Roles, 65 (9), 659-669.Hoffnung, M. (2011). Career and family outcomes for women graduates of single-sex versus coed colleges. Sex Roles, 65(9).

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    • Anil and Honey profile image

      Anil 4 years ago from Kerala

      Very attractive and helpful hub, you are an intelligent writer.Thank you for sharing.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Thank you!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      At the school where I taught until I retired last year, single gender classes were options for fifth grade students only. Student, parent, and teacher decided if they wanted their child in this class configuration. Those who did not had the option of classes with both sexes. It is difficult to draw any real conclusions about whether one is better than the other at this point but it definitely was of benefit to some of the children. ps

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I attended a single gender school in 7th and 8th grades, and then all the way through high school. I hated it at the time, naturally, because of hormones. :) I still have doubts about it simply because I think it hurts kids to learn certain social skills. :) Interesting hub; I look forward to reading more comments.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      PS - That's the thing - it works well for some and is inappropriate for others! It's impossible to come up with a one size fits all solution.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      You're right, billybuc - the world isn't single gender. I hi k learning how to interact with different people is an important part of school. Thanks for weighing in

    • Keith R Greene profile image

      Keith Greene 4 years ago

      Every girl I know who went to a single gender HS was promiscuous; every boy socially impaired. Many guy friends said the homoerotic practices were overt and damaging to them. In real life, jobs, we work together and deal with each gender's strengths and weaknesses so I see no real benefit to delaying that partnership. The areas we should all focus on is how little teachers get paid, the lack of one on one time between teachers/students, and how destructive standardized testing is in such an unstandardized society.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      I feel like the only people who enjoy standardized tests/find them valuable are legislatures...

      You're absolutely right - attracting (and keeping) high quality teachers and providing good training are the only (I think) sure fire ways to improve education. I believe that all students are capable of learning, if they have teachers who are willing and able to help them achieve. It's difficult work, though, and our society tends not to value teachers, so it is easy for teachers to become discouraged when the don't get the support they need.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      A friend of mine teaches in a charter, gender specific school. She supports it for early elementary, but suggests it be co-ed as they approach junior high. The dynamics works better and allows for better socialization of genders.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      That makes a certain amount of sense - younger boys are super bouncy! I appreciate your comment and insight.

    • WannaB Writer profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 4 years ago from Templeton, CA

      My only experience in single gender teaching was in Sunday School. I taught sixth grade girls. I occasionally also combined the class with the boys of the same grade if the male teacher was absent. I think at the junior level separating the sexes for the class instruction after the group time worked very well. In other situations where I had both sexes for that grade, it was much more difficult because the girls were more mature than the boys and the different sexes responded differently to the same instruction.

    • Natashalh profile image
      Author

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Yes, that age is difficult! They're why I picked high school, instead. =)

      Many of the (I think) more sensible advocates of single-gender education suggest it as a useful tool for those couple of years while boys and girls are very different, on average.

      Thanks for weighing in!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

      Natashalh,

      I studied in a Co-Ed. But I have friends who studied in boys' school and colleges. They are timid, they blush when ever they are in girls company. I have also found some boys who studied in single gender education have no respect for females.

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