Should boys and girls be taught separately? Does single-sex education boost academic success? Read the arguments for and against.
by: Kristin Stanberry
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.
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 Great Schools 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.”
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.