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Coed versus Single-sex Education

Coed versus Single-sex Education

26 January, 2016

Some parents prefer sending their children to single-sex schools while others to Co-ed schools. Both have their own pros and cons.

What the two sides can agree on, however, is that every child is unique and deserves an education that uses evidence-based teaching approaches to meet their particular needs. Both co-ed and single-sex education can cater this need.

“What’s particularly important is presenting school structures and educational opportunities in ways that can appeal to and draw on individuals’ interests, aptitudes and motivations as opposed to their category membership,” says Pennsylvania State University psychologist Lynn Liben, PhD, who studies how stereotypes affect children’s educational and occupational choices.

  •  Learning differences

Single-sex education advocates often point to brain differences as evidence for the benefits of separating girls from boys in the classroom.

Coeducation supporters agree that there are some small physiological differences in male and female brains. But they also say there’s a lack of evidence that these differences matter to learning at the individual level. For example, a meta-analysis of 242 studies conducted between 1990 and 2007 — published in the November 2010 Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 136, No. 6) — examines gender differences in math performance and finds that girls perform as well in the subject as boys.

While these types of teaching approaches may be thought to improve grades, test scores and college acceptance rates, there’s little empirical evidence showing that sex-segregated classes improve educational outcomes. A 2005 U.S. Department of Education comparison of same-sex and coeducational schools found a dearth of quality studies examining academic benefits and concluded that the results are mixed and not conclusive enough for the department to endorse single-sex education.

The problem, many experts say, is that it’s nearly impossible to compare apples to apples when it comes to single-sex versus coeducation. Most research on single-sex education has been done with private schools, not on single-sex classes in U.S. public schools. In addition, it’s rare for any studies on the topic to use random assignment. Even if they are public — and not charter or magnet — schools often also make academic changes when they switch to a single-sex format, making it hard to attribute gains or falls to any one measure.

  • Rewriting gender stereotypes?

Mixed academic outcomes aren’t the only reason the debate on single-sex education continues. The research is also inconsistent on whether single-sex education can reduce gender stereotypes. Sax and other advocates say that single-sex education has been shown to broaden students’ horizons and encourage them to explore their own strengths and interests without feeling constrained by gender stereotypes. Yet other experts suggest that segregating students by sex can actually increase gender stereotyping. These children are strongly affected when the surrounding environment makes gender divisions explicit, even though they are already well aware of gender, These effects are likely to have profound impacts on the kinds of learning experiences and personal relationships kids have down the line.

  • It’s about choice

Effective teaching often depends on getting children engaged and excited about learning the material, and for that, each teacher has to work with each child’s motivations, interests and preferences.

“America’s schools have many problems, and there is no one solution,” says Baumeister, author of “Is There Anything Good About Men?” (Oxford, 2010). “But if there is one suggestion that is likely to yield solutions, it is to allow experiments.”

So, as the research continues to explore the benefits of coed and single-sex schools, Baumeister suggests letting parents decide which option is best suited to a child’s individual needs and talents.

“Many boys and girls do fine with coed schools, but some do better in same-sex schools,” Baumeister says. “Society can benefit from choice and diversity, so let’s offer options.”

Some researchers, on the other hand, argue that segregation is very seldom a beneficial form of “choice” and that fostering diversity within schools, rather than across schools, is the best option. Psychologists and education experts are likely to hear much more about this controversial issue as researchers on both sides continue their work.