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Single-sex Education versus Coeducation in Adolescence

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  1. Do the hormonal changes at puberty justify single-sex education?
  2. Are adolescents less socially distracted in single-sex schools?
  3. Does single-sex education prevent early sexual behavior and pregnancy?

Do the hormonal changes at puberty justify single-sex education?  

It is simply untrue that “testosterone improves math skills” or “estrogen improves verbal skills,” despite the claims of certain single-sex school advocates.

Once they enter adolescence, girls secrete higher levels of estrogen and progesterone, and boys secrete higher levels of testosterone; however, these hormones have very modest, if any, effects on thinking and learning skills. Many lines of research have attempted to tease out sex hormone effects on verbal, spatial, or memory skills, and the overall findings are negative. Whether studying menstrual fluctuations, hormone supplements in elderly men or women, hormone treatments in transsexual patients, or even – most relevant to education – hormone treatments given to teenagers who are delayed in the onset of puberty, the findings are the same:  little-to-no effect.1

Then again, the rise in testosterone at puberty, which happens in both boys and girls, has one clear-cut effect: elevating sex drive in both males and females. There is no question that this can change the dynamics in a middle- or high-school classroom; however, this is not sufficient rationale for segregating boys and girls, as sexual attraction is also present among some classmates in all-girls’ and all-boys’ schools.

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1 Liben, L. S., Susman, E. J., Finkelstein, J. W., Chinchilli, V. M., Kunselman, S., et al. (2002). The effects of sex steroids on spatial performance: A review and an experimental clinical investigation. Developmental Psychology, 38, 236-253.

Are adolescents less socially distracted in single-sex schools?

Single-sex classes do not eliminate social distraction, sexual or otherwise.

Adolescence is a period of significant change with respect to peer relations, and so it is likely that every boy and girl will experience certain periods when they are highly preoccupied with social (non-academic) aspects of school; however, sexual attraction is just one of many social distractions that can interfere with adolescents’ learning. Single-sex classrooms pose just as much (if not more) opportunity for same-sex bullying, hazing, cliquishness, and sexual attraction as do coeducational classes.1 

What’s more, there is evidence that gender segregation disturbs boy-girl interactions when the two sexes do come together at lunch, recess, or more formal social gatherings.2 Lacking the opportunity to work together in a serious, non-sexual environment, boys and girls may over-glamorize, misunderstand, and even harass the other sex when they do have a chance to mingle outside the classroom. Sooner or later, males and females have to learn to work together, and the earlier this happens, the likelier that understanding and mutual respect will become core features of their relationships.

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

2 Datnow, A., Hubbard, L., & Woody, E. (2001). Is single gender schooling viable in the public sector? Lessons from California’s pilot program. Final Report. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED471051.pdf

Does single-sex education prevent early sexual behavior and pregnancy?

No. Research has identified many risk factors for teen pregnancy, but co-education is not one of them.

Early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy are serious concerns; thus, a great deal of research has examined both the causes and solutions to these problems. Research tells us that students who (a) are well-educated about reproductive biology, contraception, and sexual diseases; (b) have access to contraceptives; (c) view themselves as having positive academic futures; and (d) have warm, supportive relationships with their parents and other authority figures are less likely than their peers to engage in early and risky sexual activity.1,2,3 Single-sex schools do not necessarily address any of these issues. Even sex education itself is no more effective when it is sex-segregated than when boys and girls are taught together. The key to developing mature, healthy relationships between the sexes is clear, effective, and respectful communication. Girls and boys who learn about and honestly discuss with each other their bodies, biologies, and perspectives are more likely to delay sexual intercourse and avoid early pregnancy.

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1 Deptula, D. P., Henry, D. B., & Schoeny, M. E. (2010). How can parents make a difference? Longitudinal associations with adolescent sexual behavior. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 731-739.

2 Allen, J. P., Philliber, S., Herrling, S., & Kuperminc,G. P. (1997). Preventing teen pregnancy and academic failure: Experimental evaluation of a developmentally based approach. Child Development, 64, 729-742.

3 Brindis, C. (2006). A public health success: Understanding policy changes related to teen sexual activity and pregnancy. Annual Review of Public Health, 27, 277-295.