Do Single-Sex Classes and Schools Make a Difference?

By Anfara, Vincent A.; Mertens, Steven B. | Middle School Journal, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Do Single-Sex Classes and Schools Make a Difference?


Anfara, Vincent A., Mertens, Steven B., Middle School Journal


Until the late 19th century, education in the United States was single-sex education. Coeducation gradually entered the American educational landscape in the late 1800s (Bureau of Education, 1883; Butler, 1910; Kolesnik, 1969), and since that time, single-sex education mainly has been confined to private and denominational (mostly Catholic) schools. According to Tyack and Hansot (1990) and Hawtrey (1896), economic factors were the major impetus for the rising "tide of coeducation." Simply put, it was cheaper to educate boys and girls together than to operate separate schools, which would have required duplicating expensive facilities, equipment, and personnel. Feminists of the day also valued coeducation as a necessary step in the women's rights movement and their influence contributed to the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, aimed at guaranteeing gender equity in federally financed schools, colleges, and universities. Finally, coeducation was considered "natural" in that it facilitated the development of positive relations with members of the opposite sex, allowed boys and girls the opportunity to learn to work together, and was conducive to happier marriages (Atherton, 1972; Hale, 1929).

In the second half of the 19th century, William Harris, superintendent of the St. Louis schools and later U.S. Commissioner of Education, argued that mixing the sexes improved instruction and discipline for boys and girls by merging their different abilities and allowing students of each gender to serve as a "countercheck" on the other (Harris, 1870). As we have seen with most educational reforms and innovations, the fanfare that welcomed coeducation very soon led to concerns and indictments. In his book, Sex in Education, Clarke (1873) purported that academic competition with boys overloaded girls' brains and interfered with the development of their reproductive organs.

Single-sex education (also less frequently called single gender and SS) garnered renewed interest in the 1990s from researchers, advocacy groups, and policymakers; and since 2003, there has been an extraordinary surge in interest in single-sex public education. The new regulations, issued by the U.S. Department of Education on October 25, 2006, fueled the fire of this renewed interest. Secretary Spellings, commenting on the "final rule," noted that

Research shows that some students may learn better in single-sex education environments. The Department of Education is committed to giving communities more choice as to how they go about offering varied learning environments to their students. These final regulations permit communities to establish single-sex schools and classes as another means of meeting the needs of students. (U.S. Department of Education, 2006)

Assessing the relative advantages and disadvantages of single-sex classes and schools is difficult. As singlesex education gains interest and appeal, educators, policymakers, and advocates continue to search for research evidence to legitimize this approach to improving student outcomes (e.g., academic, behavioral, social, attendance, self-esteem). While this review of the research will not be limited solely to middle grades schools, many of the studies that are reviewed were conducted in middle grades schools. Considerable exploration of single-sex education has occurred in the realm of legal and political issues, but there has been comparatively litde examination of student outcomes and other educational implications. Salomone (2006), recognizing the problematic and inconclusive nature of this research literature, noted that most of the research originates from private and denominational schools and from abroad and tends to be anecdotal reports and scattered studies that lack scientific rigor. This installment of What Research Says will focus on what we currently know about single-sex education. Specifically, it will critically review in relation to single-sex education (a) what proponents and critics claim, (b) what researchers say about school culture and academic climate, (c) the attitudinal effects, (d) academic issues, and (e) problems with the research. …

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