Debating Single Sex Classrooms

Education Week recently published an article explaining why science doesn’t support single-sex classes, where the authors discuss research that find little difference between male and female brains and argue that not only doesn’t sex segregation improve performance, but it can actually reinforce certain gender stereotypes.

As the parent of children (a girl and two boys) in single sex schools, I have a strong interest in the outcome of this debate. While I understand that single sex classrooms may not be the answer to all of education’s woes, I think there are more factors worth looking at than simply academic performance.

Nothing Is Perfect

Educators from the Laurel School in Cleveland have weighed in as well, and are of the opinion that perhaps no one type of school is right for every child.

The research so far has been mixed; some children do benefit from separate schooling, while many others do not. One important criticism of existing research – unfortunately, something that applies to much educational research – is that it is nearly impossible to do a controlled study for this type of question. Both groups are self selected groups, and all researchers can do is study correlations.

Personally, I was concerned about a somewhat anxious daughter and her level of self-confidence as she progressed through elementary school. Research indicates that in a mixed environment, girls tend to have lower self confidence, raise their hands less to answer questions, and are generally more quiet in class.

Defying Expectations

As the Laurel School educators point out, “In girls’ schools, girls hold all offices, captain all teams, solve all mathematics problems and manipulate all science equipment; it’s not equal opportunity for girls; it’s every opportunity for girls.” Girls are not constrained by what is expected of them “as girls,” and certainly not by what they boys in the class might think about what they’re doing.

On the flip side, boys in an all-boys environment tend to become more aggressive, and less worried about hygiene than their counterparts since they don’t have to worry about what the girls in the class might think. I definitely see this in my sons’ school, where there is a very different feel (and smell!) from my daughter’s school.

However, I see very few male teachers in the early grades in mixed schools, while my sons have had a male teacher at least a few hours a week since kindergarten. Not that either male or female teachers are better than the other, but that’s the point – the all boys school in this case offers a broader experience than the mixed school does.

My $.02

I would have to say that my personal experience, like the academic research, has been mixed. I’m mostly happy with the experience my daughter has had, and in general have a very positive feeling about the opportunities that separate education can offer girls. On the other hand, I can see both the pros and cons for the boys and feel that at this point, it looks like a draw.

I definitely understand why parents would want to ensure that boys and girls are getting the same experience – it’s the only way to guarantee that it’s equal. On the other hand, I see the advantages – at least for some kids – and encourage each parent to weigh the argument for their own kids, rather than relying on generalizations.

Weigh In

What do you think? If you have experiences, positive or negative, with separate education please share them with us! If you have strong feelings about mixed education, we’d love to hear from you also. Let the debating begin!