Are Same-Sex Schools Better for Education?

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Introduction

Both Sides for Both Genders

The question of whether or not same-sex schools help children learn better has yet to be resolved due to a lack of experience and study of the many causal and effective factors of it. An analysis of the many factors in the debate is key for formulating the questions key to progressing towards a holistic understanding of how children learn best. Firstly, the context of school must be introduced, and this offers an initial challenge because the context for America’s public schools vary widely based on location and demographic factors such as ethnicity and wealth. However, across the board, “male students outnumber female students significantly in public school classrooms: 54 percent to 46 percent in pre-K and 51 percent to 49 percent from first grade to 12th grade” (Niche). This may be due to the fact that more girls are put into private school because they crave a more challenging environment due to their accelerated maturation. However, there is not enough data to support this absolutely. 

Cultural context plays as much of a role in this question as anything having to do with gender. Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education comments, “whenever girls and boys are together, their behavior inevitably reflects the larger society in which they live” (Stanberry). In this context the question of same-sex educational benefits must be secondary to what reforms public education needs for all students to thrive. However, many schools are not tackling this core issue, and rather using gender issues to make minor changes. 

The legislative debate about the issue of same-sex classrooms came to a head in the 1990s. Legal precedent was solidified when, “the Supreme Court made a ruling in the United States v. Virginia case involving male-only military college Virginia Military Institute. The conclusion: Single-sex classrooms were only constitutional if comparable resources were available to both genders” (Niche). During this time two American professors published a paper, Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls, which proposed that girls did better at math and science in a same-sex setting (Niche). While the reasons for this are not entirely clear, it may have something to do with the social pressure girls feel to hide their intelligence around boys (The Huffington Post). 

When boys and girls are separated the double standards which keep girls down, and turn girls against each other due to sexism in a Patriarchal society become less of a social pressure. In coed schools, “More than 90 percent of…children have been bullied or have witnessed someone being bullied due to their intelligence or talent, a survey by the U.K.-based Anti-Bullying Alliance has found” (The Huffington Post). Bullying is the most overt form of social control in this context, and nearly all girls receive the message that if they are smart:

They will be a threat to boys.

They will not be seen as pretty.

They are arrogant.

They deserve to be punished.

Punishment occurs for smart children of both genders in different ways, but this is more of a challenge for girls since they mature earlier.

A Case for Separation

A strong case for separation was made in 1999 when public middle school, Jefferson Leadership Academies began offering same-sex classrooms. The result in this case were conclusively positive for separation, and had to do with limiting the distraction caused by the opposite sex at this time of adolescence:

Student grade point averages for students who had previously attended Jefferson in either grades 6 or 7 increased for all students, male and female, in both grades 7 and 8 under the single gender academy configuration.

The increase was statistically significant for both genders at grade 7 and for males at grade 8. (Sharpe)

While there is not enough evidence to rate same-sex education conclusively, the evidence gathered so far often supports separation. In 1992 research came out which asserted that public coed schools shortchanged girls because they were playing to the median of intelligence. With more boys in public school than girls, the more intelligent girls were not being challenged. Not only that, but research found that girls were being systematically ignored;

Boys called out eight times as often as girls did. Teachers ignored the ‘raise your hand’ rule. If a boy yelled out, the teacher usually praised his contribution. Girls who called out got reminders to raise their hands.

Teachers valued boys' comments more than girls' comments. Teachers responded to girls with a simple nod or an OK, but they praised, corrected, helped, and criticized boys.

Boys were encouraged to solve problems on their own, but teachers helped girls who were stuck on problems. (Sharpe)

This behavior is common within the double-standard ridden Patriarchal society of America in which boys are rewarded for doing less than women. As a result of these preliminary studies more and more schools are offering same-sex education. According, “to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, only 34 single-sex public schools were in operation in 2004. That number jumped 25-fold in 10 years: The New York Times reported in 2014 that 850 schools nationwide had single-sex programs’ (Anderson). While improvements are apparently being made, one wonders if they are the right type of improvements. The psychology behind successful separation has not been fully investigated, and considering that it reflects the culture at large this is an area of much needed study. 

However, at the same time as this trend increases, awareness of the multiple genders and gender neutrality and diversity are also ramping up. Also, “Conversely, opponents claim single-sex education perpetuates traditional gender roles and ‘legitimizes institutional sexism,’ while neuroscientists refute the merits of gender differences between girl and boy brains” (Anderson). Thus, the move towards same-sex classrooms may in part be a response to the increasingly complex gender identity question, which can be a major distraction in schools. However, that leaves children who do not identify as just “girl” or “boy” out of the loop of this education trend (Dickey). 

So far, South Carolina has the most extensive same-sex education programs. There efforts have been highly successful at addressing the psychology behind the benefits of separation; 

Former South Carolina Superintendent of Education, Jim Rex viewed single-sex schools as an integral part of the state’s public school choice initiative. Rex believed that without gender stereotypes, students would feel less pressure to conform to societal expectations of feminine or masculine traits and would feel comfortable exploring instructional interests they would not normally. In 2009, 215 schools in South Carolina had single-sex programs with David Chadwell being the nation’s first statewide coordinator of single-sex education. (Dickey)

South Carolina may be onto something, and are encouraging more states to advance a same-sex education approach.

Gender Focused Education

More and more research is accumulating on this subject, and it has revealed a need for greater specificity which transcends simple separation (National Association for Single Sex Public Education). As “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” (Stanberry). Those who advocate against the viability of this approach often cite the fact that most educators are not trained to do gender specific teaching. This is true, but “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” (Stanberry). While this is also true it reveals another major challenge in the understanding and application of gender in a quickly evolving culture.

Educators and researchers agree that gender differences in learning styles are not ubiquitous across traditional gender lines. This is also increasing as the plasticity of genders are, as gender differences; 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.’ (Stanberry)

This is a challenging reality that will not get any easier as time goes by without compassionate understanding and investigation into the complex nature of diversity in humanity. There are no easy answers in the area of gender identity, childhood development, or education reform, but the current methods are clearly insufficient. 

Conclusion

The question of whether or not same-sex schools support education is not a simple one, and has yet to be answered. While there is evidence that separation is successful, long term success requires an understanding of the causal and psychological factors which support that success if the change will be implemented on a larger scale. Whether or not same-sex education is the right choice, public school education needs extensive reform to balance out injustices, and to protect and encourage all students. The plasticity of the evolving understanding of gender strongly complicates this effort. Therefore, the call is for more research into each of these areas, as well as implementing experiments and changes across the board. Close study will give the means to unpack this complex question for the benefit of children, teachers, and the evolving tapestry of American culture.

Works Cited

Anderson, Melinda D. “The Resurgence of Single-Sex Education.” The Atlantic, 22 Dec. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/12/the-resurgence-of-single-sex-education/421560/

Dickey, Millicent Whitener. “Gender-Specific Instructional Strategies and Student Achievement in 5th Grade Classrooms.” (Doctoral Dissertation). Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2014. Retrieved from: http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3617&context=etd

National Association for Single Sex Public Education. “Single-Sex vs. Coed: The Evidence.” Singlesexschools.com, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.singlesexschools.org/research-singlesexvscoed.htm

Niche. “Pros and Cons of Single-Sex Education.” Niche.com, 2016. Retrieved from: http://articles.niche.com/pros-and-cons-of-single-sex-education/

Sharpe, Wesley. “Single-Gender Classes: Are They Better?” Education World, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr215.shtml

Stanberry, Kristin. “Single-sex education: the pros and cons.” Great Kids, 19 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/single-sex-education-the-pros-and-cons/

The Huffington Post. “School Bullying Often Victimizes Children With Intelligence Or Talent, Survey Finds.” Huffingtonpost.com, 20 Nov. 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/20/survey-finds-more-than-90_n_2166734.html