Does Single-Gender Education Help Students? Pros and Cons
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?
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?
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!
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).