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Single-Sex Education: Policy, Practice, and Pitfalls

by Frances R. Spielhagen - October 07, 2008

Single-sex education has emerged as a promising reform that might potentially address declining academic achievement across all populations. Since the US Department of Education confirmed their legality in 2006, single-sex schools and classes have proliferated in public schools. This commentary traces the evolution of single-sex classes over the last century and provides a research-based framework for policymakers contemplating this reform.

Single-sex classes have emerged over the last few years as an attractive option for school reform. Education policymakers at all levels have turned to this model as a means of fostering student achievement, but the arrangement has become especially attractive in the volatile middle grades, where achievement scores frequently decline. However, single-sex classes are not a panacea that will automatically bolster student achievement. Policy and reform researchers must be wary of quick-fix efforts to promote single-sex arrangements. Despite commonly held concerns about the adverse effects of adolescent socialization, simply separating boys and girls will not automatically enhance their achievement. Nevertheless, research suggests that this school reform has merit, as long as policymakers avoid pitfalls deriving from hasty implementation and inattention to equity.

Reform efforts often bring educators full-circle to former solutions for perennial problems. In fact, coeducational classes are a relatively new development in American education and education in general.  Until the early years of the 20th century, single-sex schools were the norm in secondary schools, but these schools also commonly prescribed distinctly unequal gender-specific course curricula that routinely precluded girls from rigorous academic work. During the Progressive Era, the creation of the comprehensive coeducational high school promised to provide a wide range of courses to all students.  Early feminists supported this reform because, in theory, these schools would provide access to the entire curriculum to girls. Over the course of the twentieth century, coeducational classes did lead to greater numbers of girls taking advanced mathematics and science courses and ultimately attending college.

However, although coeducational classes became the standard arrangement in academic classes, most schools across the United States at first routinely maintained single-sex physical education classes. In 1975, Title IX legislation specifically forbade this option, because of potentially inequitable distribution of resources and facilities for all-girl physical education and athletic teams (Tyack & Hanson, 2002). Confused over both the spirit and the letter of Title IX, schools subsequently generally avoided all single-sex classes, even though the concept was not globally forbidden by the law (Salomone, 2003).

Early research (Steedman, 1985; Fennema & Carpenter, 1981, Lee & Bryk, 1986) focused on the benefits of single-sex arrangements to address declining mathematics achievement among girls. These works laid the foundation for Sadker and Sadker’s (1994) landmark text on how schools shortchange girls. However, Gilson’s (1999) comparison of single-sex and coeducational arrangements among female middle school students in independent schools found no significant differences in mathematics achievement, quantitative performance, or attitude towards mathematics in either arrangement. The American Association of University Women (1998) had initially endorsed single-sex classes but reversed its official stance because single-sex education might potentially diminish the opportunities offered to girls and thereby might adversely affect girls’ achievement in all arenas. By the end of the twentieth century, educational researchers began to express concern about achievement issues among boys (Kleinfeld, 1999). Point-counterpoint discussions on the issue of academic success among both boys and girls resumed earlier this year (Viadero, 2008), but a reasonable approach to school reform must preclude zero-sum reasoning that favors any one group over another.

In 2002, an amendment to No Child Left Behind legislation opened the door for schools to experiment with single-sex classes as a means of improving educational outcomes for all students. The following year, the Office of Civil Rights immediately began reviewing arguments about the legality of single-sex classes, and in 2006, the United States Department of Education confirmed the legality of single-sex arrangements. This decision emerged in the midst of the growing proliferation of such classes, as educators look to this model as a means of energizing instruction for students.

Assessing the effectiveness of single-sex classes is problematic at best and must be approached carefully. Single-sex arrangements are often part of multi-faceted educational reforms that include changes in curriculum delivery and discipline policies. Very often, single-sex classes in middle schools target declining achievement among students who are already in great emotional and cognitive flux. The combination of these factors may well be effective (or not), but it is difficult to pinpoint the effect of any one of the variables. Researchers who have engaged in earlier studies of single-sex classes can attest to the complexity of results that derive from separating students in any way.  In the current educational environment of accountability-based reform, opportunities for further research regarding single-sex schools abound. Good research must continue to inform this school practice. Therefore, education researchers must continue to explore questions surrounding the efficacy and effectiveness of this reform.

So, do single-sex classes work?  The answer is a complex “Yes, no, and maybe.” While single-sex classes are not a “silver bullet” for the social ills that beset young adolescents and affect their academic performance, recent research that has examined the implementation of single-sex classes in several districts across the nation suggests that such arrangements work for some students, both boys and girls, in some academic areas. Some research suggests that single-sex classes are most effective when related to the developmental needs of the students, i.e., the younger the student, the more likely that being in a single-sex class will be a positive experience (Spielhagen, 2007). Moreover, as with any well-planned reform, teacher preparation is critical. Teachers must understand the ways in which they can address and actualize the various ways in which students learn and particularly the various ways in which boys and girls learn differently (Gurian, 2001). Such training takes place over time. No quick fixes here either.  

Finally, it is essential that equal curriculum opportunities be offered to all students, both boys and girls.  The slippery slope to inequity is dangerously real! It can be a quick trip from acknowledging differences in learning-styles to assuming differences in capacity. How easily might we return to a curriculum that provides shop classes for boys and home economics classes for girls? The watch-dog efforts of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Women are essential in our pluralistic society to assure that equity underlies all educational reforms and to warn about the dangers that lurk if the goal of true equity becomes lost in the enthusiasm for this reform.  

Should all students be taught in single-sex classes? Of course not! The very complexity of student personalities and populations precludes any “One size fits all” approach to education, especially in the middle grades. However, the more pertinent question is whether single-sex classes should be offered as a viable choice for students, parents, and teachers who strongly favor them and want to be involved in them. The answer to that question is a resounding “Yes.” Public schools must involve parents in decision-making about single-sex classes. Moreover, students who opt for single-sex classes may benefit from the arrangement simply because they chose it. Their success may well be related to the chicken/egg symbiosis of choice and efficacy. Nevertheless, it is still success for those who choose the arrangement. As schools across the nation struggle to address declining achievement among all students, success is welcome wherever it can be found.


American Association of University Women (1998). Separated by sex; A critical look at single sex education for girls. Washington, DC:  AAUW.

Datnow, A., Hubbard, L., & Conchas, G. (2001). How context mediates policy: The implementation of single-sex public schooling in California. Teachers College Record, 103(2), 184-206.

Fennema, E., & Carpenter, T. (1981). Sex-related differences in mathematics: Results from national assessment. The Mathematics Teacher, 74, 554-559.

Kleinfeld, J. (1999). Student performance:  males versus females. The Public Interest, 134, 3-20.

Lee, V., & Bryk, A. (1986). Effects of single-sex secondary schools on student achievement and attitudes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 381-395.

Gurian, M. (2001). Boys and girls learn differently: A guide for teachers and parents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness:  How our schools cheat girls. New York: Touchstone.

Salomone, R. (2003). Same, different, equal: Rethinking single sex schooling. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Spielhagen, F. (Ed.).  (2007). Debating single-sex education: Separate and equal? Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Steedman, J. (1985). Examination results in mixed and single-sex secondary schools. In D. Reynolds (Ed.), Studying school effectiveness. London: The Falmer Press.

Tyack, D., & Hansot, E. (2002). Feminists discover the hidden injuries of coeducation. In E. Rassen, L. Iura, & P. Berkman (Eds.), Gender in education (pp. 12-50). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Viadero, D. (2008). AAUW sees no educational crisis for boys. Education Week (27)39. Retrieved September 18, 2008 from http:www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008.06/04/39aauw.h27.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 07, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15397, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 9:17:54 AM

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About the Author
  • Frances Spielhagen
    Mount Saint Mary College
    E-mail Author
    FRANCES R. SPIELHAGEN, Ph.D. in an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Mount Saint Mary College.
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