Should Secondary Physical Education Be Coeducational or Single-Sex?

By Hannon, James C.; Williams, Skip M. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Should Secondary Physical Education Be Coeducational or Single-Sex?


Hannon, James C., Williams, Skip M., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Physical education in public and private schools in the United States remained primarily separated by sex until the passage of Title IX in 1972. Under provisions of Title IX, schools were required to provide both boys and girls with the same opportunities to participate in all physical education activities. The only times considered appropriate for boys and girls to be separated was for class competition during contact sports such as wrestling, football, and hockey. As school districts started coming into compliance with Title IX, the inevitable question began to be asked, "Is coeducational or single-sex physical education the best learning environment for all students?"

Although one purpose of Title IX legislation was to eliminate gender inequity in physical education, research has indicated that inequitable teaching behaviors have continued and that these behaviors have limited the learning potential of both boys and girls (Dunbar & O'Sullivan, 1986; Griffin, 1984;Treanor, Graber, Housner, & Wiegand, 1998). This has led some to call for occasional, single-sex groupings within coeducational physical education (Gabbei, 2004), or a return to single-sex physical education (Scraton, 1993). Recently, the U.S. Department of Education (2006) made changes to alleviate restrictions on single-sex classes. These changes have provided greater flexibility for schools to be able to offer single-sex classes. The changes also require single-sex classes to be evaluated every two years to make sure that males and females are being treated equitably.

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We have found that nearly half of the middle or junior high schools in which we have placed student teachers have taken advantage of the Department of Education's alleviated restrictions to switch back to single-sex physical education classes. In our view, this action is as premature as the sudden switch to coeducational classes was in the 1970s. Educational reform should be based on a heavy dose of supporting research. After reform has been made, it should be carefully assessed to determine whether or not it is meeting its intended purpose. The move to coeducational classes in physical education was not supported by an appropriate amount of research, and the current trend towards switching back to single-sex physical education also lacks support.

If we solely examine the limited available research, it is difficult to answer the question of whether coeducational or single-sex physical education provides the best learning environment in secondary physical education. Relatively few studies have been published, and their conclusions in support of either coeducational or single-sex physical education have often varied based on the outcome(s) of interest and grade levels investigated. The studies that have been conducted have focused primarily on teacher and student perceptions, student-teacher interactions and participation opportunities, and student physical activity levels in coeducational and single-sex physical education.

Teacher Perceptions

When examining the literature on teacher perceptions, there appears to be a preference by teachers for single-sex physical education. Scraton (1990) interviewed physical education teachers and found the dominant assumption to be that girls are less physically capable than boys, and that girls should avoid activity that could be of danger to them. Nilges (1998) conducted a study to determine how girls are perceived in physical education and implied that girls are treated as second-class citizens in the physical education setting. According to Griffin (1984), some teachers argue that boys hold back when participating in physical education with girls and that the class becomes watered down because of the girls' low skill level. Griffin (1985) reported that teachers complained that boys play too rough for girls, and that girls will not really try in a game. …

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