Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Promise and Peril of Single-Sex Public Education

By Leonard Sax — March 01, 2005 7 min read
Can single-sex education really work in the diverse settings of American public schools, particularly in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods where academic excellence is least often found?

Single-sex education, long a fixture in the private sector, is moving into public schools. Five years ago, fewer than a dozen public schools in this country offered any kind of single-sex educational options. Today, at least 156 public schools offer single-sex classrooms, with many more planning to offer that format for the 2005-06 academic year. That’s more than a tenfold increase in just five years.

Why the surge of interest in single-sex education? And should we perhaps be more cautious, and more concerned about the possibility that single-sex education might reinforce harmful gender stereotypes? Also, most of the North American research on single-sex education has been conducted in private or parochial schools, which may evoke images from “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”and “Dead Poets Society.”Can single-sex education really work in the more diverse setting of American public schools, particularly in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods where academic excellence is least often found? What happens when Mr. Chips meets Snoop Dogg?

Advocates of single-sex public education can point to several success stories. Seattle’s Thurgood Marshall Elementary School used to be a failing school in one of that city’s poorest neighborhoods. Then the school’s energetic principal, Benjamin Wright, reinvented the school as a dual academy: girls in all-girls classrooms, boys in all-boys classrooms. The results have been encouraging. Boys’ test scores on the reading portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, exam have increased from the 10th percentile to the 66th percentile. Girls have benefited as well. In the year before the change, when the school was coed, not a single girl passed the math portion of the WASL. In the year after the change, 53 percent of the girls passed. And the improvement has not been limited to grades and test scores: Student behavior has also improved. Discipline referrals dropped from 30 referrals per day to fewer than two a day—“overnight,” according to Mr. Wright. All these improvements occurred without any additional funding, and without any change in class size. The program at Thurgood Marshall has now achieved consistently high results for four consecutive years.

Similar stories of improvement in neighborhood schools, with slightly less spectacular results, can be told about other public schools, such as the Africentric School in Columbus, Ohio, and Odyssey Middle School in the middle-class community of Boynton Beach, Fla.

But not all schools achieve good results when they venture into single-sex education. Newport Middle School in Newport, Ky., and Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, abandoned single-sex classrooms after just one year. In each case, there was no significant improvement in grades or test scores; at Newport Middle School, discipline referrals for the boys soared. Becky Lenihan, a teacher at Newport Middle School with 14 years of teaching experience, said that she wrote up more boys for discipline problems during the one year the single-sex program was in place than in all of her previous years in education combined.

Why the difference? Why do some schools achieve good results when they begin offering single-sex classes, while other schools show no improvement or even show deterioration? Professional development appears to play a crucial role. At the schools where single-sex classrooms were not effective, teachers received no specific training in best practices for gender-specific teaching. Putting a teacher in a single-sex classroom for which she is not suited by temperament or training may be a recipe for failure.

But what are best practices for gender-specific teaching? Do girls and boys really learn differently?

Ten years ago, the fairest answer to those questions would have been: Nobody knows. In the past decade, however, good research has demonstrated that there are, in fact, hard-wired differences in the ways girls and boys learn, and that there are evidence-based techniques that can exploit those differences.

Putting a teacher in a single-sex classroom for which she is not suited by temperment or training may be a recipe for failure.

One simple example derives from innate differences in the ability to hear. Baby girls have a more sensitive sense of hearing than baby boys have. Those differences get larger as kids get older. By the age of 12, the average girl has a sense of hearing at least seven times more sensitive than the average boy. We also know that girls are distracted by extraneous noise (another student tapping a pencil, for instance) at sound levels 10 times lower than those that distract boys. Most girls learn best in a quiet classroom, free of distractions. That’s not true for many boys. If you’ve visited some of the schools where boys’ academic achievement has risen after the introduction of the single-sex format, the first thing you’ll notice is how loud those classrooms are. “It was a scene of controlled chaos,” said one reporter after visiting an all-boys classroom at a public school in Independence, Ky. The boys “shouted their answers and jumped up to share their work. … Despite the noise, it was clear the boys were learning.”

Scientists now also have a better understanding of sex differences in brain development. Researchers at Virginia Tech used sophisticated electrophysiologic imaging of the brain to examine brain development in 508 normal children ranging in age from 2 months to 16 years. These researchers found that while the areas of the brain involved in language and fine-motor skills such as handwriting mature about four years earlier in girls than in boys, the areas of the brain involved in geometry and spatial relations mature about four years earlier in boys than in girls. When it comes to learning geometry, the brain of the average 12-year-old girl resembles the brain of the average 8-year-old boy. When it comes to writing poetry, the brain of the average 12-year-old boy resembles the brain of the average 8-year-old girl.

These researchers concluded that the various areas of the brain develop in “a different order, time, and rate” in girls, compared with boys. A curriculum that teaches the same subjects in the same sequence to girls and boys runs the risk of giving rise to 12-year-old girls who think they can’t do geometry—and that they will never be any good at geometry—and 12-year-old boys who don’t like to read or write.

I’ve just returned from Waterloo, Iowa, where I had the privilege of observing single-sex classrooms at three public schools. At Cunningham Elementary School, I watched how master teacher Jeff Ferguson led his class of 1st grade boys. The first thing that struck me on entering that class was how much it looked like a can of worms. Some of the boys were standing, some were sitting; another boy was twirling in circles. But all of them were, in their own way, paying close attention to Mr. Ferguson. When Mr. Ferguson told them to start on their assignment, they got right to work. One boy was so pleased with his work that he kissed his paper when he had finished.

Of course, later on in their schooling these boys will have to to sit down and be quiet. But why should they have to do so in 1st grade? In a coed class, the boys have to sit, because boys jumping up and down will unfairly distract the girls. But in an all-boys class, the other boys seem unbothered by the boys who are jumping and twirling.

Experiences such as these have left me doubtful about the value of studies that merely compare “single-sex schools” in one category with “coed schools” in another category—studies such as the one launched last year by the U.S. Department of Education, scheduled for completion in the spring of 2006. Merely adopting the single-sex format, without appropriate professional development for teachers, is no guarantee of success. On the contrary, it often leads to failure.

The growing recognition of hard-wired gender differences in learning may explain another feature of the movement toward single-sex public education: Namely, almost all of the public schools that have launched such programs in the past five years are elementary or middle schools, not high schools. Before 2000, the most common rationale for single-sex education was to “minimize distractions.” Today, educators are more likely to mention gender differences in how girls and boys learn as the principal justification for single-sex education. From that perspective, if you wait until high school, you’ve waited too long. You’ve got to catch kids at an earlier age, before they give up on school.

The growing recognition of hard-wired gender differences in learning may explain why single-sex programs are now being launched in the earlier grades.

We are a long way from having a well-established set of best practices for gender-specific education, however. One area that clearly needs further research concerns gender-atypical children. What about the shy boy who wilts in the noisy, boisterous classroom where most other boys thrive? What about the loud, rambunctious girl who disdains the quiet classroom most girls prefer? While there has been some research on pedagogical practices that work for gender-atypical children, this research is far from conclusive.

For that reason, and others, single-sex education in public schools must remain voluntary for the foreseeable future. Parents, in consultation with teachers, must make the final determination of whether the single-sex format is right for their child. In the public sector as in the private sector, allowing parents a choice between coeducation and single-sex education is likely to yield the best results for all children.

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as The Promise and Peril of Single-Sex Public Education


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