Should boys and girls be taught separately?
Does single-sex education boost academic success?
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.
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.
- Single-sex education enhances students 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 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.
- Fyi, in 2006, former U.S. 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.
- 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). 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.
What can educators and parents do about the gender gap between boys and girls?
There is plenty they can do.
- Improve the general academic performance of males and the math and science achievement of females.
- Create a setting that appears to reduce the distracting behavior boys and girls fashion for one another.
“The effectiveness of single-gender programs may be due more to students’ and parents’ motivation, commitment, and small class size than to the fact that they enroll only boys or girls.”