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Educational Policy

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  1. How can single-sex schooling be harmful?
  2. What can boys and girls learn from each other?
  3. If high-income families can choose to send their children to private single-sex schools, why shouldn’t families who use public schools have the same choice?

How can single-sex schooling be harmful?

Single-sex education promotes gender stereotyping and fixed gender roles. It is especially harmful to children who do not conform to traditional roles.

When children are separated based on simple biological characteristics, there is potential for serious harm. First, the very act of segregation fosters the belief in deep, far-reaching behavioral and ability differences, which runs counter to the true, statistically modest sex differences that do exist.1 Research shows that segregation promotes stereotyping. When teachers emphasize gender, for instance, by lining up boys and girls separately, the children develop more stereotypic views of gender than peers in classrooms where gender is not emphasized.2 In fact, segregated classes also increase teachers’ stereotyping.3

Second, gender segregation has negative consequences for social behavior. Research has shown that children who spend more time playing only with  same-sex peers show increased gender-typed activities, and their behavior becomes increasingly gender-differentiated.4 For instance, boys with more exposure to same-sex peers become more aggressive over time, and certain boys, such as those with less self-control, are placed at greater risk for behavior problems.5 

Third, single-sex education overlooks the diversity of children within each gender. That is, some boys like to read and write, and some girls love sports and competition. For most cognitive abilities, the range of skill within each gender is far greater than the average difference between boys and girls. Even non-cognitive traits, like empathy and self-regulation, show enormous overlap between boys and girls.

Single-sex education can be especially harmful for children who do not conform to gender stereotypes. Peers are often the strongest enforcers of sex roles. Boys who do not fit the tough, athletic mold and girls who do not fit feminine stereotypes are subject to bullying or exclusion from other children.6 It appears that bullying is more severe in single-sex academies, which lack the buffering effects of the opposite sex.7 By contrast, children in a co-ed class have a wider opportunity to find others they are comfortable with.  This is supported by a large recent study of middle and high-school students, where greater numbers of cross-gender friendships were found to reduce the overall level of aggression, compared to schools in which such friendships are rarer.8

Further, single-sex education reduces boys’ and girls’ opportunities to work together and learn from each other. These integrated interactions are known to be the most effective method for improving relations among groups of people. 9 Girls may help boys learn better self control; boys may coax greater energy and challenge out of girls. Why would societies want to limit opportunities for girls and boys to learn from each other, discovering how to respect and appreciate one another in a supervised, productive environment? Public education has many goals, including preparing children for their future participation in workplaces and families. In American society, all these activities are “co-ed,” making it all the more important that children learn to work alongside many different types of people, including those of the other gender.

Finally, single-sex public education is often more expensive for districts to implement than coeducational instruction. Because of the enormous challenge of scheduling by subject and ability and then also by gender, districts are forced to forego other, more valuable choices. Money spent on training teachers in alleged “gender-specific learning styles” could better be spent on training teachers in science or literacy instruction, or even in better integrating boys and girls in the learning environment.

Consider this: Will communities that are establishing new all-boys’ academies offer the same state-of-the art robotics and woodcraft classes at comparably selective all-girls’ and co-educational schools? The challenge of maintaining the legal standard of “substantially equal” instruction between single-sex and co-ed classrooms can be expensive and can lead to legal challenges, as several school districts are already experiencing. With finite resources and teachers that inevitably vary in ability, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain truly equivalent choices between single-sex and coeducational classrooms.   

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1 Hyde JS (2005) The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist

2 Hilliard, Lacey J.; Liben, Lynn S. 2010. Differing levels of gender salience in preschool classrooms: Effects on children's gender attitudes and intergroup bias. Child Development, 81: 1787-1798.

3 Datnow, A., Hubbard, L., & Woody, E. (2001) Is single-gender learning viable in the public sector? Lessons from California's pilot program. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

4 Martin, C. L., & Fabes, R. A. (2001). The stability and consequences of same-sex peer interactions. Developmental Psychology, 37, 431-446.

5 Fabes, R. A., Shepard, S. A., Guthrie, I. K., & Martin, C. L. (1997). Roles of temperamental arousal and gender segregated play in young children's social adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 33, 693-702.

6 Kimmel, M. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

7 Jackson, C. (2002). Can single-sex classes in co-educational schools enhance the learning experiences of girls and/or boys? An Exploration of Pupils’ perceptions. British Educational Research Journal, 28, 37-48.

8 Faris, R., & Felmlee, D. (2010). Status struggles: Network centrality and gender segregation in same- and cross-gender aggression. American Sociological Review, 76, 48-73.

9 Pettigrew, T. F. (1998). Intergroup contact theory. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 65-85.


What can boys and girls learn from each other?  

Co-education provides a positive, structured environment for boys and girls to work together, compete with each other, and learn to respect and support each other.

Public education serves many purposes. Beyond academic skills, schools are also expected to prepare children for citizenship in our democracy. To be successful, children must learn to live and work with others whose beliefs, backgrounds, skills, and interpersonal styles are different from their own. Research has clearly shown that children who have interacted with diverse individuals are better prepared for this task.1 The experience of sharing, working, and learning with children of both genders is vital to developing healthy relationships in both their future families and workplaces.

All children – girls and boys – are more successful when they can flexibly use a combination of skills traditionally associated with each gender. These include (a) cooperation and competition, (b) emotional and logical intelligence, and (c) sharing and leadership skills. When children are exposed to a broad range of topics, skills, and interests, they are better able to forge bonds with diverse others.

In recent years, girls have made tremendous gains in math, science, and higher academic attainment, almost exclusively through co-educational schooling. Now the focus is on boys, who some argue must be segregated to protect them from girls’ over-achievement; however, most research indicates that boys, if anything, do better in classrooms with more, not fewer, female classmates.2 Girls are a good influence on boys’ learning, and boys have been a good influence on girls’ ambition and athleticism. Just as brothers and sisters learn from each other in families,3 boys and girls in co-ed schools have much to gain from learning side-by-side.

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1 Orfield, G., Frankenberg, E., & Garces, L. M. (2008). Statement of American social scientists of research on school desegregation to the U.S. Supreme Court in Parents v. Seattle District and Meredith v. Jefferson County. Urban Review, 20, 96-136.

2 Victor Lavy and Analía Schlosser (2007) Mechanisms and impacts of gender peer effects at school. NBER Working Paper No. 13292.

3 Rust J, Golombok S, Hines M et al. 2000. The role of brothers and sisters in the gender development of preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 77:292-303.

If high-income families can choose to send their children to private single-sex schools, why shouldn’t families who use public schools have the same choice?

Even though they are voluntary, single-sex public schools or classrooms are expensive to administer and deplete resources from other educational goals. In addition, their very existence promotes the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally different and cannot work well together.

By law, single-sex public classrooms are voluntary, so the fact that some children are especially vulnerable in such settings would seem to be moot; however, there are good reasons why segregation is unacceptable in American public schools, even if they are purely a matter of choice.

First, our constitution does not allow single-religion public schools, even though this choice is available in private education. What’s more, the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools with its landmark Brown v. the Board of Education ruling in 1954, declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Why is sex segregation any different? Even though such schools are optional, their mere existence advocates the position that boys and girls are deeply different and, therefore, unequal.

Consider also what boys and girls learn when we tell them they are so different they cannot study and work together in the same classrooms. Gender segregation has harmful consequences among children who are directly affected by it (i.e., those children who attend single-sex schools) and children who merely observe it (i.e., do not participate in) it.1 This is true for the same reasons that living in a racially segregated society has harmful consequences, even among children whose own neighborhoods or schools are integrated. That is, children who observe that social groups (races, gender, classes) occupy different spheres (schools, neighborhoods) assume that such segregation is natural and desirable. The result is that children perceive such group differences to be larger and more fixed than they truly are.

Research has found no clear benefit of single-sex education, so the effort to establish them in already cash-strapped districts is likely to divert much-needed time and energy away from the task of improving instruction. Choice can be a good thing, but only if it is among educational strategies that are both effective and democratic.

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1 Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (2006). A developmental intergroup theory of social stereotypes and prejudice. In R. V. Kail (Ed.), Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 34, pp. 39-89). San Diego: Elsevier.