25 January, 2016
Single-sex education, wherein boys and girls are taught separately, is an old approach that’s gaining new attention.
While single-sex education has long been implemented in many private schools, it’s a relatively new option for public schools. The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education estimates that approximately 400 public schools now offer some form of single-sex education.
A driving force in the single-sex education movement in a recent research shows natural differences in how males and females learn. Putting this research into practice, however, has triggered a debate that extends beyond pure academics. Political, civil rights, socioeconomic and legal concerns also come into play. As the debate heats up, it helps to understand all sides of the issue.
- Nature vs. nurture
Before weighing the pros and cons of single-sex education, consider the influences of “nature versus nurture.” Many factors affect each child’s learning profile and preferences:
- Some factors related to the child’s nature, such as gender, temperament, abilities (and disabilities), and intelligence.
- Other influences stem from the way parents and society nurture the child: Family upbringing, socioeconomic status, culture and stereotypes all fall under the “nurture” category.
According to Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, “…whenever girls and boys are together, their behavior unavoidably reflects the larger society in which they live.” Depending on one’s point of view, this statement can trigger arguments both for and against single-sex education.
- Making the case for single-sex education
Those who are in favor of single-sex education in public schools argue that:
- The students of the opposite sex can be a distraction.
- Leonard Sax and others agree that merely placing boys in separate classrooms from girls accomplishes little. But single-sex education enhances student success when teachers use techniques geared toward the gender of their students.
- Some research indicates that girls learn better when classroom temperature is warm, while boys perform better in cooler classrooms. If that’s true, then the temperature in a single-sex classroom could be set to optimize the learning of either male or female students.
- Some research and reports from educators suggest that single-sex education can broaden the educational prospects for both girls and boys. Advocates claim co-ed schools tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, while single-sex schools can break down gender stereotypes. For example, girls are free of the pressure to compete with boys in male-dominated subjects such as math and science. Boys, on the other hand, can more easily pursue traditionally “feminine” interests such as music and poetry. One mother, whose daughter has attended a girls-only school for three years, shared her experience on the Great Schools parent community: “I feel that the single gender environment has given her a level of confidence and informed interest in math and science that she may not have had otherwise.”
- What critics say about single-sex education
Those who claim single-sex education is ineffective and/or undesirable have the following reasons.
- Few educators are formally trained to use gender-specific teaching techniques. However, it’s no secret that experienced teachers usually understand gender differences and are adept at accommodating a variety of learning styles within their mixed-gender classrooms.
- Gender differences in learning aren’t the same across the board; they vary along a continuum of what is considered normal. For a sensitive boy or an assertive girl, the teaching style promoted by advocates of single-sex education could be ineffective (at best) or detrimental (at worst).
- Educating students in single-sex schools limits their opportunity to work cooperatively and co-exist successfully with members of the opposite sex. Students in single-sex classrooms will one day live and work side-by-side with members of the opposite sex.
- At least one study found that the higher the percentage of girls in a co-ed classroom, the better the academic performance for all students.
- The American Council on Education reports that there is less academic disparity between male and female students overall and a far greater achievement gap between students in different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, with poor and minority students children faring poorly. Bridging that academic chasm, they argue, deserves more attention than does the gender divide.
- Single-sex education is illegal and discriminatory, or so states the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In May 2008, the ACLU filed suit in federal court, arguing that Breckinridge County Middle School’s (Kentucky) practice of offering single-sex classrooms in their public school is illegal and discriminatory. The school doesn’t require any child to attend a single-sex class, yet the suit argues that the practice violates several state and federal laws, including Title IX and the equal Educational Opportunities Act.