What is the Place for Single Sex Schooling in Public Education
by Amanda Datnow & Lea Hubbard - October 13, 2008
This commentary discusses the current movement towards single sex public school. Our goal is to raise questions and hopefully inspires thoughtful inquiry about these schools and their role in American public schools.
What is the place for single sex schooling in public education? This question is particularly salient today as some politicians, parents and educators continue to push for more school choice in the public sector and strive to replicate the successes of single sex education that have been documented in the private sector. In addition to being supported by those who advocate for more choice in public schooling, single sex education is also seen as a possible response to a host of educational issues: the documented differences in how girls and boys learn, concerns about boys lagging behind in literacy and their disproportionate rates of placement in special education, and concerns about girls lack of pursuit of advanced study in science, math, and technology. The hope is also that single sex schools or classes might reduce distractions among adolescents, thereby enhancing academic engagement.
Recent interest in single sex public schools has also been fueled by changes in federal legislation. For the past thirty years, single sex public schools and classes were prohibited by Title IX of the US Constitution, except under particular circumstances. However, in 2006, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings released new regulations stemming from provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act giving educators more flexibility under Title IX to offer single sex education at the elementary and secondary levels. Whereas in the past districts offering a single sex class or program to one gender had to offer a comparable single sex program to the other gender, now districts are allowed to provide a single sex program to one sex and offer a substantially equal single sex or coeducational program to the other.
The National Association for Single Sex Public Education, an advocacy group that supports the choice of single sex schools and tracks the movement, states that during the 2008-2009 school year, there are at least 442 public schools in the US offering single sex education, most of which are coeducational schools offering some single sex classes. Just under 100 of those schools are fully single sex (see www.singlesexschools.org). This reflects substantial growth compared to before the 2006 changes when experiments with single sex public education were fewer and farther between.
The growth and proliferation of these schools raises a number of important questions, which vary depending on whether one is a researcher, policymaker, educator, or parent or wears multiple hats, as many of us do. Our goal in this commentary is to raise some of those questions and hopefully inspire thoughtful inquiry about these schools and their role in American public schools.
The first set of questions concerns the purpose and theory of action that drives support for single sex schools or classes. For many parents and students, such schools represent an expansion of choice viewed as a highly desirable opportunity within public education. Motivations to experiment with single sex public schooling are often driven by theory and ideology, grounded in stereotypes or assumptions of what children or communities need, and dependent much less on an actual data-informed assessment of needs. Supporters also seem to have different motivations or goals in mind. This is not surprising given that the schools or classes are often started by educators who are seeking to respond to a problem in their particular local context. In some cases, educators start single sex schools or classes because they are concerned about the underachievement of girls in math or science. In other cases, they might be seeking leadership academies for troubled boys or girls in urban settings. In other cases, parents are pushing for the establishment of single sex schools modeled after the more rigorous, college preparatory, private school environments that often appear in single sex Catholic schools. These motivations are very different and potentially construct very different designs for schools and, as research suggests, often result in very different outcomes (Lee & Bryk, 1986; Mael, 1998; Riordan, 1990). When we are weighing the merits of single sex schools and classes we need to understand the similarities and differences across these schools and the motivations that underlie them. The consideration of all single sex schools and single sex classes as a group, without the benefit of close examination seems problematic. Moreover, in lending support for single sex schools questions also surface regarding who is not being served by these arrangements and the effects on those left behind in the coeducational setting from which students attending the single sex school/class might be drawn.
The second set of questions revolves around what happens inside single sex schools and classrooms. As noted above, different theories of why single sex education may be necessary are likely to lead to different theories of action for how the schools or classrooms are organized, what curriculum is chosen and by whom, and how classes are taught. Look inside! Every school and classroom is different from the next. The daily interactions and dynamics among students and between teachers and students in single sex schools and classrooms also require some investigation. For example, some teachers take advantage of these settings to teach life lessons to students, whereas others do not. Some promote progressive thinking about gender roles, whereas others promote more traditional values. There is also an expectation that girls and boys will feel freer to participate when the opposite sex is not present and that distractions will be reduced, but these are of course assumptions, and not always a given. How do teachers take advantage of the single sex arrangements to enhance teaching and learning and empower boys and girls in areas where they have typically been inadequately supported? Whether instructional benefits are realized for girls and boys in single sex settings likely depends on whether or not teachers have received professional development related to gender differences in learning, teaching in a single sex environment, and gender stereotyping.
The third main question involves the extent to which single sex schools/classes are effective. What measures are appropriate to assess their effectiveness? Are improved test scores and grades sufficient indicators or must we also look at student attitudes, college entrance rates and ultimately career choices? How long must a student be in the single sex environment for positive effects to take hold? At what grade levels are they most effective? And, how long do the benefits last? For example, if students attend single sex schools during middle school, are the attitudes and skills developed there sufficient to sustain them throughout their remaining educational and professional career? Is it enough to say the single sex schools/classes are as effective as the coeducational option, or do we insist that they be more effective than the coeducational alternative? Choice advocates would probably say its fine for them to simply be as effective. Skeptics might argue the need for more. And then what about the impact on gender equity? As Arms (2007) notes in her review of research, there are mixed findings with regards to single sex education with respect to gender equity, and that simple separation by sex does not alone advance equity. All of these issues and questions are critical for local educators, researchers and policymakers experimenting with single sex schools to address and consider in their own data collection and analysis efforts.
The fourth set of questions is really more of a set of cautions. The education community needs to be more careful about not over-expecting from single sex schools or classes. Quite simply, we need to ask ourselves, what wont single sex schools or classes do for us? We might be able to realistically expect these experiments to provide new educational options, expand educational experiences, and hopefully improve academic outcomes for the girls and boys involved. However, we cannot expect single sex education to be a panacea. Single sex education might, if designed for the purpose, promote gender equity, but it will not be able to reverse years of earlier socialization of students and teachers with respect to gender or gender roles. Teachers, students, and parents come to school with prior assumptions that influence their interactions on a daily basis. Also, while single sex schools might lead to changes in individual students academic achievement and educational trajectories, we cannot expect them to change the broader socio-political context around gender, allow for broader life options for men and women, close the wage gap between men and women, or lead to more gender-equity informed government policies or child care provisions for working parents. If designed properly, such schools could advance gender equity, but they are only one small step on the way to truly reaching equity for men and women on a national level.
Arms, E. (2007). Gender equity in coeducational and single-sex classrooms. In S. Klein (Ed.), Handbook for achieving gender equity through education (pp. 171-190). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Lee, V. E., & Bryk, A. S. (1986). Effects of single-sex secondary schools on student achievement and attitudes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(5), 381-395.
Mael, F. A. (1998). Single sex and coeducational schooling: Relationships to socioemotional and academic development. Review of Educational Research, 68(2), 101-129.
Riordan, C. (1990). Boys and girls in school? Together or separate? New York: Teachers College Press.