School & District Management

Federal Study Examining Single-Sex Public Schools

By Michelle R. Davis — March 24, 2004 3 min read
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What is believed to be the first comprehensive study of public single-sex schools in the United States is under way, with a mission from the Department of Education to determine whether all-boys or all-girls education can help improve learning.

The two-year study is starting up just as the department has proposed new, relaxed regulations that would allow public schools more leeway to teach boys and girls separately.

The department has said it is not advocating single- sex education for students, but says it is an additional option for school districts and parents.

In announcing the proposed regulations earlier this month, department officials acknowledged that research on the issue is incomplete and inconclusive. Researchers in the field agree. There’s no dearth of studies, but many of them have been done on faraway countries, private schools, or Roman Catholic schools instead of American public schools.

“We believe there is some promising evidence that single-sex schools and classrooms can be effective, but the evidence is limited,” said Michael J. Petrilli, an associate deputy undersecretary at the department. “We want to learn more about how effective it can be.”

The study will examine only all- boys and all-girls schools, not schools that may have a grade or a few classes divided by sex. So far the study team has found 25 single-sex public schools in the country.

In September, Education Department officials hired Cornelius Riordan, a sociology professor at Providence College in Rhode Island, as the project director, along with the RMC Research Corp. in Portland, Ore., and the Washington-based American Institutes for Research.

The $1.2 million study, which got started last month, will focus particularly on children deemed at risk for school failure, Mr. Riordan said.

Researchers are beginning with an “exhaustive” review of existing literature on the topic, Mr. Riordan said, and they have already identified more than 2,000 studies to examine. Those will include research done by Mr. Riordan and Fred A. Mael of the AIR, who is also participating in this new study.

‘First Cut’

That review will be followed by a survey of existing public single-sex schools, looking at a wide range of factors, including grade levels, socioeconomic status of students, race, teacher credentials, per-pupil expenditures, and discipline, Mr. Riordan said.

Later, the researchers will choose six single-sex schools for in-depth observations. Conclusions from the study should be available by March 2006, though some preliminary results may come out sooner, Mr. Riordan said.

“I think the results will take us a long way since nothing like this has ever been done in the public sector,” he said. “This will be our first cut at it.”

Some critics have complained that the department is moving too quickly by relaxing regulations before the research is done.

The proposed regulations, which are in the midst of a 45-day review period, would amend Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funds. (“Rules on Single-Sex Education Allow Room to Experiment,” March 10, 2004.)

In past years, Title IX and subsequent court rulings have all but banned most single-gender education in public schools, except in physical and sex education classes.

However, more than a year ago, the department announced its intent to loosen those strictures, and since then new public single-sex schools and classrooms have emerged.

“Why would you allow school districts to make sweeping changes knowing that the jury is still out on the educational benefits you’re providing students?” said LaShawn Y. Warren, the legislative counsel for the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Do They Work?

But Mr. Riordan said researchers were in a quandary. Little research exists on single-gender education in public schools, because few such programs have existed, he said.

Because the formation of single-gender schools is on the rise, however, Mr. Riordan said, the researchers now can try to determine whether they are successful and why.

“The proposed new regulations allow for an increase in single-sex schools and allow us to study and begin to answer this very important question,” he said.

Mr. Petrilli of the Education Department said it was unreasonable to expect educators to hold off on such efforts until research was done.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say we can’t try new things until they are absolutely effective,” he said. “You can’t prove it’s effective until you try it out and experiment with it.”

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