Issues of Concern for Teachers in Discussions of
Single-Sex Public Education
At the beginning or end of each academic year, various individuals and committees on my campus seem to bring up the issue of separating the girls from the boys in classroom instruction. The subject seems to receive lip service only, and if any decisions have been made, no implementation has resulted.
Outside of the bubble of education, the subject of single-sex education comes and goes as a subject of interest. The published research is extensive, interdisciplinary, and international. Interested parties include psychologists,
attorneys, and politicians at the local, state, and national level; as well as parents and the student population. Whenever interdisciplinary study is involved, private agendas abound and publications are often contradictory or suspect in nature. For the purposes of this discussion, I will attempt to pull out of the vast literature a few topics that may be of particular interest to teachers and administrators at the intermediate, middle, and secondary level of public schools.
One thing that is required to proceed is a brief review of the pros and cons of single-sex education. On an initial web search, the following table was useful in order to summarize the various arguments for and against single-sex education in general:
Women in particular benefit from a single-sex education; research shows that they participate more in class, develop much higher self-esteem, score higher in aptitude tests, are more likely to choose male' disciplines such as science in college, and are more successful in their careers. In the USA Who's Who, graduates of women's colleges outnumber all other women; there are only 83 women's colleges left in the States today.
1998 survey from the American Association of University Women, a long-time advocate of single-sex education, admitted that girls from such schools did not in fact show academic improvement. That they are more inclined towards maths and sciences is of questionable importance to society as a whole. As the report noted, "boys and girls both thrive when the elements of good education are there, elements like smaller classes, focused academic curriculum and gender-fair instruction". These can all be present in co-educational schools.
The inclinations of children in the formative years, between 7 and 15, are to gravitate towards their own sex. They naturally tend towards behaviour appropriate to their gender. It is therefore easier to implement an education strategy geared specifically towards one gender. Certain subjects are best taught in single-sex classrooms, such as sex education or gender issues.
The formative years of children are the best time to expose them to the company of the other gender, in order that they may learn each others' behaviour and be better prepared for adult life. The number of subjects benefiting from single-sex discussion is so small that this could easily be organised within a co-educational system.
Boys and girls distract each other from their education, especially in adolescence as their sexual and emotional sides develop. Too much time can be spent attempting to impress or even sexually harassing each other (particularly boys toward girls). Academic competition between the sexes is unhealthy and only adds to unhappiness and anxiety among weaker students.
In fact boys and girls are a good influence on each other, engendering good behaviour and maturity particularly as teenage girls usually exhibit greater responsibility than boys of the same age. Academic competition between the sexes is a spur to better performance at school.
Single-sex schools for women are a natural extension of the feminist movement; there are co-educational schools, men have had their own schools, why should women not? It would still be discrimination if there were only male single-sex schools; as long as both genders are catered for, this discrimination is redressed.
Single-sex schools (such as the Virginia Military Institute) are a throwback to the patriarchal society of the past; in many historical cultures, only men were allowed an education of any sort. To perpetuate this is to remind women of their past subservience and to continue to hold them from full social inclusion
Teachers themselves are often discriminated against in single-sex schools; a boys' school will usually have a largely male staff where women may feel uncomfortable or denied opportunity, and vice versa.
Teachers frequently favour their own gender when teaching co-educational classes; for example, male teachers can undermine the progress and confidence of girl students by refusing to choose them to answer questions etc.
Summarizing from the replicated table, and with the selected information below, educators could presumably be persuaded to buy into the pro side of this long-existing debate, and then generate the following questions for further clarification: The international bent of so much of this research, and the fact that the United States, in comparison to Australia, China, and Great Britain where single-sex education is widely available, perhaps even institutionalized, has failed to adopt single-sex schools and classrooms in the public venue; The idea of whether only girls or only boys benefit from single-sex education; The remaining legal or quasi-legal perceptions and misperceptions; The idea of using single-sex classrooms as a solution to discipline issues and socialization; The phenomenon labeled "Gender Intensification" (www.singlesexschools.org/advantages-forgirls.htm, 7/26/2010) which accuses the co-educational public school format as being responsible for the perpetuation of gender stereotypes; and the unintended but seldom disputed advantage single-sex education has on the reduction of teenage pregnancy rates. We will examine some of these issues in the remainder of this article.
Research of single-sex education has been going on as long as education has existed. To my initial surprise, nearly all of the studies measuring academic performance originated outside of the United States, although duplications studies have been done here. Generally, this research has concluded that single-sex education is beneficial to both boys and girls. As quoted on the website of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, extensive studies from England, Australia, and Jamaica between 1998-2002 all reported academic achievement to be superior in single sex schools. The Cambridge study concluded that the format was "remarkably effective at boosting boys' performance particularly in English and foreign languages, as well as improving girls' performance in math and science."(www.singlesexschools.org/evidence.html, 7/25/2010). In the same article, "Single-Sex vs. Coed: The Evidence," a three-year pilot project at Stetson University in Florida, updated in 2 008, showed dramatic disparities for both boys and girls scoring proficient on the FCAT: boys in coed classes:37%; girls in coed classes: 59%; girls in single-sex classes 75%; boys in single-sex classes 86%. These studies are important to teachers because they controlled for factors such as socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and included extensive interviews with the students included in the statistics. The main researchers in the Florida study also emphasized that ". . .it is not sufficient simply to put all the girls in one room and all the boys in another and say let's give it a whirl.' Teachers and administrators need to be committed to the program and must be determined to see it through.
While we would like to believe that academic performance would be the parameter teachers were most intrigued by, I would argue that teachers are at least equally interested in the breath of opportunity afforded to the student, the continuation and refinement of diversity in the classroom, and the autonomy of the student in a relationship. Teachers as parents may also prioritize such categories as their child's happiness and temperament (http://www.greatschools.org/find-a-school/defining-your-ideal/single-sex-e. . ., 7/25/2010).
These overlapping sub topics serve to introduce the studies which measure the experience of girls, often regardless of age, in single-sex education. Summarizing again at the NASSPE website, the authors conclude that: "Arguably the single greatest benefit of girls-only education is the greater breadth of educational opportunity which girls enjoy in an all-girls classroom. At every age, girls in girls-only classroom are more likely to explore "non-traditional" subjects such as computer science, physics (or the primary school precursors to the physical sciences), woodworking, etc. This finding is extraordinarily robust, having been replicated in every age group from kindergarten through college. . ." (www.singlesexschools.org/advantages-forgirls.htm, 7/26/2010).
Anecdotal evidence, including interviews with teachers, specialists, and administrators leads one to conclude that for girls, six through twenty-one, these experts who have personally experienced single-sex education as student's or teachers would recommend it. Ms. Jill Elizabeth Aufill, educator in the same urban, diverse district where I teach, provides a personal experience at the college level and speculates upon how it would improve success-for both sexes- in her current position at a secondary school. Paraphrasing from our interview, she observed that single-sex classes, particularly in a drama class, provided opportunities that girls would not have enjoyed in a co-ed environment, such as set design and construction. As a high school skills expert, she emphasized that instruction would be identical for both sexes, but her experience portends that girls would "rise to the occasion given the opportunity." (Aufill, Jill Elizabeth. Personal Interview. July 27, 2010).
What about the boys? The international studies reviewed previously are overwhelmingly supportive of single-sex classrooms for boys, perhaps beginning even younger than for girls. They disagree only in their conclusions regarding who is helped the most, and the parameters of measurement. While academic studies, particularly in Great Britain, are
strong in showing academic improvement, the popular perception is that boys are not as well socialized without the experience of having girls in the classroom. On the contrary, studies show that boys have a similar experience to girls in deepening the breath of their experience, and that the boys grow up more well rounded and more adjusted in social situations
This brings me to the area of efforts to improve discipline and behavior by introducing single sex classrooms in schools. A fascinating study from 2002 quoted on the same web site cited above tells about an elementary school in Seattle, WA. Where Benjamin Wright, then principal, simply wanted to reduce office referrals and improve attendance. He reports that
not only was this accomplished nearly overnight, but these young boys also experienced dramatically improved standardized test scores and, when interviewed, reported better attitudes and enthusiasm toward school. His results are consistent with replication studies in other areas of the United States, in Canada, and throughout Great Britain. The almost irrefutable conclusion is not only that both boys and girls benefit from single-sex classrooms, but that boys benefit more, at least at the younger ages.
It might seem paradoxical that by segregating the sexes you are improving diversification, but that is not what teachers, parents, or students are reporting. In the single sex classroom, teachers are able to differentiate more within the sexes, able to apply the research on how the brain works and how boys and girls learn differently. Teachers thus provide a more diversified, and more comfortable, atmosphere for both (http://greatdad.com/printerfriendly.php?id=3020, 7/25/2010).
In conclusion, from an initial attitude of ambivalence about single sex schools, I am now convinced that this is one solution to the problems we as teachers are seeing in our middle and high school classrooms. The statistics are in, the application of these results are lacking. We need to start somewhere.
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