Single-sex schools have been utilized throughout history for very different purposes. For example, so-called first-generation single-sex schools came to existence as male-only institutions expressly because males were thought to be the sex that was capable and deserving of education. Eventually, all-female academies were born to prove that women, too, were capable of learning and also deserved a share of societal attention in the education sphere.
However, it was not until the advent of the Common School Movement, started by Horace Mann in the 1830s, that students of the working class and poor were deemed fit for education. During this time, public schools became coeducational-not for any philosophical reason, but due to efficiency and budgetary concerns stemming from the numerical growth of willing students. Single-sex schools continued, mostly in the form of private, oftentimes parochial institutions.
In modern times, so-called second-generation single-sex schools have reinvented themselves as a medium for affirmative action and a remedy to social disadvantage. For example, Detroit and Milwaukee school districts attempted to establish single-sex academies for boys of African heritage yet met rigorous resistance. Attempts to establish single-sex schools for girls were also met with threats of litigation from civil rights groups. The most famous case was the Young Women's Leadership School (YWLS) in New York City.
Besides being a focus of recent popular culture, single-sex schooling has received legitimacy in the policy environment with changes to Title IX in conjunction with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). After Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas introduced the amendment to NCLB, schools offering gender-separate classrooms have increased from four in 1998 to 228 in 2006, with 44 of those schools entirely single sex. While political will reflects support for expanding parental school choice, current policy discourse continues to assume balkanized positions between those believing single-sex schools are a violation of civil rights and those purporting that such schools are a remedy to a multitude of problems youths face in urban society.
To date, none of the exhaustive reviews of the literature have turned up a significant body of evidence demonstrating negative effects of single-sex schooling. A limited number of studies indicate mixed or ambiguous results. Research citing positive effects indicates encouraging changes in attitude, self-esteem, academic engagement, higher achievement, and greater gender equity. Overall, findings are especially convincing for low-income and working-class students and particularly persuasive concerning African American and Hispanic students.
For example, girls who attend single-sex schools experience higher levels of self-esteem and confidence. This is an important consideration because a feeling of confidence is a variable cited most often in predicting female mathematics achievement. While more research is needed to ascertain possible cause-effect relationships, there is a general consensus that girls in single-sex schools prefer math and physics and perceive them as less masculine than their co-educated peers. Similarly, boys from single-sex environments exhibited stronger preferences for music and art when compared with other boys in coeducational environments.
Studies also show that girls who attend single-sex schools are provided more opportunities to serve in leadership positions in their schools, whereas in coed environments, girls might be members of clubs, but the boys take the leadership roles. Overall, girls who attended single-sex schools evidenced more open attitudes and exhibited more flexible behaviors when it came to gender characteristics.
Both boys and girls who attend single-sex schooling options experience a school culture strongly geared toward academic achievement and as such, spend significantly more time on homework than students who attend coed schools. Studies of adult women who attended all-girls’ schools growing up indicate higher academic aspirations and attendance at more selective universities than might be predicted by their high school grades and achievement test scores. In addition, these young adult women were more apt to be politically engaged on their college campuses and have plans to attend graduate school. A sustained effect of single-sex secondary education was the less-stereotypic opinions women have of gender roles into their adult lives.
Single-sex schools seem to promote more collaborative environments as well as higher levels of order and calm. Male and female students in single-sex environments consistently report higher levels of confidence and peace than those in coed settings. Additional research is needed to further explore the school or classroom-level characteristics that seem to promote a more orderly, caring milieu. It may be that the practices that materialize in a single-sex school can be transferrable to a coed setting.
There is still much to learn about single-sex schooling. Overall, the majority of research literature recommends that the limited research results-positive, negative, or ambiguous-be utilized for developing a future research agenda rather than as definitive evidence that unequivocally endorses increasing single-sex options in the public sector.
Educational Opportunities/Access, No Child Left Behind, Science Education for Girls, Title IX.
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