Coeducational and Single-Sex Physical Education in Middle Schools: Impact on Physical Activity

By McKenzie, Thomas L.; Prochaska, Judith J. et al. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Coeducational and Single-Sex Physical Education in Middle Schools: Impact on Physical Activity


McKenzie, Thomas L., Prochaska, Judith J., Sallis, James F., LaMaster, Kathryn J., Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


Key words: adolescents, gender equity, policy, Title IX

Efforts to design the most appropriate learning environments for adolescents frequently lead to discussions of separate-sex versus coeducational schooling. Arguments and research supporting both types of schooling have been made, particularly as they relate to academic, socioemotional, and interpersonal development (Mael, 1998). The conduct of physical education classes in single-gender versus coeducational formats is widely debated internationally (Penney, 2002). U.S. perspectives on gender equity and physical education were recently summarized (O'Sullivan, Bush, & Gehring, 2002), and in this country Public Law 92-318 (i.e., Tide IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972) has promoted coeducational physical education for over 30 years. Although this class configuration is the most common, some practitioners in secondary schools still resist it.

Arguments for or against coeducational physical education frequently voice concerns for equity, socialization, physical and emotional safety, and student and teacher preferences. These arguments, however, have infrequently been subjected to scientific scrutiny. Nonetheless, male and female students received differential treatment in coeducational physical education decades ago (Dunbar & O'Sullivan, 1986, O'Sullivan, Bush, & Gehring, 2002), and several authors raised doubts about the adequacy of girls' participation in these settings (Treanor, Graber, Housner, & Wiegand, 1998; Turvey & Laws, 1988; Wolf et al., 1993). Treanor et al. (1998) and Lirgg (1993, 1994) found both boys and girls preferred single-gendered physical education formats, but other studies countered this notion (Griffin, 1984, 1985). Meanwhile, Griffin (1984) found that coeducational physical education was not negative for all girls or positive for all boys.

One objective of school physical education (National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 1995), is to provide physical activity opportunities for students (Sallis & McKenzie, 1991; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). While boys typically are more physically active than girls in out-of-school environments (Sallis, Prochaska, & Taylor, 2000), few comparisons of physical activity by gender during physical education have been made using objective measures. One observational study found boys to be significantly more active than girls in third-grade coeducation physical education classes but only during free play segments (McKenzie et al., 1995). A study using accelerometers found girls and boys to have similar rates of physical activity during fifth-grade coeducational physical education classes, but the boys were significantly more active during recess (Sarkin, McKenzie, & Sallis, 1997). At the middle school level, we previously reported a baseline study in which boys engaged in significantly more moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and vigorous physical activity than girls during physical education classes, particularly during skill drills, game play, and free play contexts (McKenzie, Marshall, Sallis, & Conway, 2000). As well, physical activity levels varied substantially among different lesson contexts, with students being the most active during fitness contexts and least active during knowledge contexts. Gender differences in physical activity levels during secondary school physical education might be due to subject matter variations, student biological and motivational changes, societal (peer and teacher) expectations, and increasing differences in motor skill development.

We found no published studies comparing boys' and girls' physical activity levels in different lesson contexts in coeducational and single-gender physical education classes. In our baseline study, most classes were coeducational (McKenzie et al., 2000), and it was not possible to examine gender-specific versus coeducational configurations. …

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