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Do Single-Sex Classrooms Improve Learning?

In an article in Science 23 September 2011 entitled The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling, Diane Halpern and a number of other authors argue that “single sex schools neither improve academic success nor counteract gender stereotyping by teachers and students.”

In an article in Science 23 September 2011 entitled The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling, Diane Halpern and a number of other authors argue that “single sex schools neither improve academic success nor counteract gender stereotyping by teachers and students.”

Single-sex education has been growing in popularity since the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was passed, allowing local educational agencies to use “Innovative Programs” funds to support same-gender schools and classrooms “consistent with existing law.” Today more than 445 public coed schools offer single-sex classrooms.

Yet many experts say much of the success of single-sex schools stems from a demanding curriculum and a focus on extracurricular activities — gains that would have been seen regardless of whether the opposite sex was in attendance.

“In attempting to improve schools, it is critical to remember that not all reforms lead to meaningful gains for students. We argue that one change in particular—sex-segregated education—is deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence. There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex (SS) education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism. School is preparation for adult life. How can boys and girls learn how to interact as equals in the workplace if they have no experience interacting as equals in school?”

Why separate?

Single-sex education advocates often point to brain differences and different maturity rates as evidence for the benefits of separating girls from boys in the classroom.

“Timing is everything, in education as in many other fields,” says Leonard Sax, author of several books on the science of sex differences. “It’s not enough to teach well; you have to teach well to kids who are developmentally ripe for learning.” For example, asking 5-year-old boys to sit still, be quiet and pay attention is often not developmentally appropriate for them, but there are other ways to teach boys to read that don’t require boys to sit still and be quiet, he says.

Many experts agree that gender differences can be overblown. Teachers use strategies in the all-girls classroom and in the all-boys classroom that don’t work as well — or don’t work at all — in the coed classroom. For example, despite performing as well as boys in math courses, girls often doubt their ability to develop their math skills when faced with difficult material, according to research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD. This mindset appears to contribute to substantial gender gaps in math scores that emerge during and after middle school, While these types of teaching approaches may be thought to improve grades, test scores and college acceptance rates, there’s little empirical evidence showing that sex-segregated classes improve educational outcomes. A 2005 U.S. Department of Education comparison of same-sex and coeducational schools found a dearth of quality studies examining academic benefits and concluded that the results are mixed and not conclusive enough for the department to endorse single-sex education.

Yet other experts suggest that segregating students by sex can actually increase gender stereotyping.

Others point to the long-term effects of gender stereotyping on school infrastructure and curriculum as a down side of separating boys and girls in the classroom. Educational psychologist Sue Klein, EdD, education equity director with the Feminist Majority Foundation, a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to women’s equality, reproductive health and nonviolence, says that separate rarely means equal in public schools that make the switch to a single-sex format. Often, Klein says, women receive fewer quality resources, and many single-sex schools and classrooms exaggerate and encourage sex stereotypes by emphasizing competition and aggression among boys and passivity among girls or by setting the expectation that boys are not good at writing. “We need to understand this whole area better, but I think we know enough now that this is not a good way to spend our country’s limited education dollars,” Klein says.

It’s about choice

The bottom line, Sax says, is that most single-sex education advocates don’t believe that single-sex education is best for every child.

The Federal Government has been looking to improve the numbers of females entering math, technology, science, and engineering (STEM) programs.  It appears that the jury is still out on whether single-sex classrooms are the answer.


 

 

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