It’s a familiar scene to any teacher of adolescents: a boy doing everything in his power to get a girl’s attention, the girl giggling and batting her eyes at his inane efforts, and neither paying any attention to the lesson. The academic achievement of boys has long lagged behind that of girls, and many districts across the country have been experimenting with ways to rectify this gender gap. The most common method employed by these districts relies on the principle of separation: boys in one room, girls in another. The advantages and disadvantages have been hotly debated, but as the movement grows in major urban areas, specifically intended to increase the achievement of African American boys, its presence on the American educational scene has become impossible to ignore.
The psychological and developmental differences between adolescent boys and girls are well-known in the educational community. Robert Kirschbaum (2007) notes that research indicates that girls learn best in a quieter, more communal and collaborative environment, whereas boys thrive on noise and competition. Another issue concerns behavior: the sexual tensions between adolescent boys and girls is often a distraction for both them and their teachers. In addition, notions on ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ subjects can be cast aside. Protheroe (2005) highlights a study done in Washington, D.C. that found that single-sex classrooms can have “positive effects on achievement particularly for boys in modern languages and English, and girls in the sciences and maths.” Proponents say that there will be no social inclination to favor one subject or another; boys will be able to feel at home with literature, a typically ‘feminine; subject, while girls’ achievement in math, perceived as a ‘masculine’ subject, should skyrocket.
There is, however, some opposition to the notion of a homogeneity of learning styles consistent across both genders. Martino et. Al. (2005) argue that while the single-sex classroom is not without benefit, it can often lead to “a particular form of gender blindness” because expectations on gender predispositions are the source from which the curriculum and pedagogical methods are derived. Because of this, they say, there is little room for discussion or questioning of the constraints of the status quo gender structure. This can lead to students who are not of their respective gender’s supposed learning style being isolated and picked on. Particularly susceptible to such attitudes are male students, who, despite what Martino calls the “enhanced emotional literacy” that can come from single-gender programs, are blind to the fact that “there are lots of different ways to be male” (2005), not just those that they infer from their classroom interaction. Nevertheless, certain practices are more commonly used each gender’s classroom, and proper training for every teacher is paramount. Kingstree (2008) states that “single-gender education — done right -isn't as simple as just splitting up girls and boys, proponents say. Teachers have to be trained in the research that shows which teaching strategies may be best suited to the different ways in which many experts say boys and girls most typically learn.”
Particularly of concern for those at the forefront of the single-sex movement are African-American males, whose achievement deficits have been linked to numerous psychological and social factors. It is on this particular demographic that the most rigorous experimentation with the single-sex model has been performed. Protheroe (2009) sums up the findings: “the research is exceedingly persuasive in demonstrating that single-sex schools are effective…especially for…African-Americans.” There are, however, fierce debates as to what causes this surge in achievement in African-American single-sex classrooms and how these factors can be exploited in the heterogeneous classroom to render the movement and the expensive training and planning it entails obsolete.
Despite its alleged effectiveness, the movement is not at all without its opponents. André Boyd, a middle school teacher in South Carolina, notes that sometimes the sexual tension between students acts as a motivating factor, especially for the boys. He also says that female students tend to assume a maternal role, trying to motivate uninterested male students. Another issue with the movement is that, opponents say, separating genders during their formative social stages will only do them a disservice later on in life. They will not, say the opponents, have any (or at least adequate) knowledge of how to interact professionally with the opposite sex. Of course, the case is made that if the students aren’t academically successful, then worrying about their success in a professional atmosphere is premature; how will they be employable at all, ask proponents of the movement. Opponents also say that gender differences or sexual tensions are not the main issue; what is actually behind most of the achievement gap, they say, are race and social class (Protheroe 2005). Not considering such issues, it is maintained, is to ignore what is actually vital in educational reform.
Ultimately, any evaluation of an issue such as single-sex education cannot be general; it has to into account the specifics of the district, school(s), and students in question. African-American males, for example, seem to have the most to gain from single-sex classrooms. While it is true that gender-divided classrooms have to rely on traditional conceptions of the respective learning modalities of boys and girls, almost every district that has implemented such a program has reported success. The academic findings are also lopsidedly favorable towards single-sex education. Of course, as Protheroe (2005) points out, the existence of excellent coeducational schools alongside excellent single-sex schools indicates that the formula for great education is more complex, that it is impossible to ignore the universal elements of great schools.
Kirschenbaum, Robert. (2007). Do students learn better in single-sex classrooms? NEA Today. May2007, Vol. 25 Issue 8, p41.
Martino, W., Mills, M., and Lingard, B. (2005)Interrogating single-sex classrooms as a strategy for addressing boys’ educational and social needs. Oxford Review of Education. Vol. 31, Issue No. 2, June. 2005, p. 237-254.
McNeil, Michelle (2008) Single-Sex Schooling Gets New Showcase. Education Week, 5/7/2008, Vol. 27, Issue 36, p. 25-30.
Protheroe, Nancy. (2009). Single-sex classrooms. Principal May/Jun2009, Vol. 88 Issue 5, p. 32-35.