Monday, July 20, 2009

Coed vs. Single-Sex Education

I looked glumly at the school memo. My classroom would undoubtedly be absent due to the boys empowerment group trip of which many my male students had attended. My prediction was on target and my attendance was dismal for the day. By the time, seventh period rolled around, I had taught only twenty-seven students that day compared to the usual forty at that point. As the ten students that would make up my normally large class trickled in, one of my students noted, ‘Ms Haynes, there are only girls in class today.” I did not think twice about her observation, more concerned about the poor attendance. Despite the minute number of students present, I had an excellent lesson. Students expressed misunderstandings that had plagued them all year and asked many questions. The entire class was casual, yet productive. As the students left at the conclusion of the period, the same student remarked, “I wished everyday were like this- just us girls.” Her comment struck a chord with me. The day was extremely productive. I attributed the success of the day to the reduced class size, but what role did the same-sex atmosphere contribute to our increased productivity? This article seeks to examine the relationship between same sex education and achievement.

A 2006 ruling by the Education Department in New York allowed districts to create single-sex schools and class. This was contingent upon voluntary enrollment. I have witnessed the rebirth of these schools in New York as many public and charter schools experiment with these single-sex classrooms. They are being hailed by many as a step toward success, but the critics are just as numerous. Previously, under Title IX, sex discrimination in schools that received federal monies, were banned. Single sex classes were only utilized for physical education classes and to sex education. These recent amendments mark an attempt to align Title IX with No Child Left Behind that suggested single-sex schools. These recent ventures have been met with mixed approval.

Advocates of the practice note that boys and girls innately learn in different ways (Sax, 2005). For instance, a pubescent girl has a sense of hearing that can be up to seven times more sensitive than that of a boy. This affects learning in the classroom because girls may learn best in a quieter classroom. Coeducational settings may prohibit learning for boys who seem to be learning with the noise. Sax notes the proliferation of noise in all- boys schools, but it did not seem to inhibit the learning process. Additionally, Roberts & Bell’s (2002) study points to the fact that “various areas of the brain develop in ‘different order, time, and rate’ in girls compared with boys. In coed schools, when subjects are taught in the same sequence, regardless of gender, it may convince students that they are inept in a field when their brain is simply not ready for that particular field. Single-sex schools, thus advocate for heavy professional development that will make educator attuned to these needs and to teach accordingly.

It is widely believed that single –sex students will do better academically than their peers who attend a coed institution. Studies, however, point to different data. The belief goes largely unsupported. Studies have that shown that girls did no better academically at single-sex schools (Harker, 2000). Previous data that suggested otherwise fails to take into account background and ability factors. This contradicts a study (Campbell & Evans, 1997) that suggested that mathematics anxiety amongst females in a single-sex class decreased as the anxiety level increased in a coeducational setting. The former students were more likely to enroll in advanced math classes in high school, which has been correlated with earning potential in a future career. While the findings are mixed, there will need to be continued study on these emergent single-sex schools.

Single- sex education studies are not solely limited to academics. Hannon and Ratliffe (2007) found that female students in single gender physical education settings received more opportunities to participate in the activity. In my own experience, girls may be skittish to engage in certain activities with the fear of appearing masculine or being perceived as a threat to the male students. Girl may feel less pressure if they make an error and be more inclined to initiate the new task. Furthermore, researchers note the increased teacher initiated verbal interaction in a single gender setting. Teachers provided motivation to increase motivation in the sport.
There are a variety of factors to consider. Are same-sex schools reinforcing stereotypes of femininity and doing girls a disservice as they prepare for male-dominated fields? Additionally, previous studies that contend that students thrive in a single-sex setting generally fail to control the socioeconomic privilege associated with many single-sex schools. How can we as educators, then account for the supposed gaping differences in performance in science and math by gender? According to Campbell and Storo (1994), these numbers are failing to show that sex differences have a larger overlap than difference and averages are deceiving. Sex differences actually are much smaller than demographic difference that shows race and type of school play a larger factor.

While the data maybe mixed, we as educators, play a huge role in determining student attitudes and achievement. If we tell our girls that it is ok for them not to do well in math, they will play into the stereotypes. If we encourage boys to be more boisterous in class, while insisting on demure behavior from girls, we will undoubtedly foster certain beliefs in their education. There is no place for stereotypes in the classroom and while we should take into account differences in learning styles, we must only use them to the advantages of our students and never as a crutch.

Works Cited
Campbell, K.T. & Evans, C., (1997). Gender issues in the classroom: a comparison of
mathematics anxiety. Education, 117, 330-380,360

Campbell, P. B., & Storo, J. N. (1994). Girls are... Boys are... Myths, Sterotypes, and

Gender Differences. Retrieved July 16, 2009, from Office of Educational
Research and Improvement Web site:

Hannon, J.C. & Raliffe, T. (Late Winter 2007). Opportunities to participate and teacher
interactions in coed versus single-gender physical education settings. Physical
Educator, 64(1) 11-20

Harker, R. (June 2000). Achievement, gender and the single-sex/coed debate. British
Journal of Sociology of Education, 21(2) 203-218

Roberts, J.E. & Bell, M.A. (2002) .The effects of age and sex on the mental rotation
tasks, verbal performance, and brain electrical activity. Developmental Psychology, 40, 391-407

Sax, L. (2005, March 2). The promise and peril of single-sex public education. Education
Week, 48,34,55. Retrieved July 16, 2009, from

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