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The Lasting Impacts of Single-Sex Education

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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November 21, 2012

As a visiting student at Barnard College years ago, I attended the transfer students’ orientation where each student was asked to explain why she had chosen Barnard. I’ll never forget one woman’s response: Well, I went to an all-girls elementary school and an all-girls middle school and an all-girls high school, and when I got to my co-ed college, I didn’t know how to function around the boys, so I decided to transfer to Barnard. Well, that’s one solution. I think I laughed at the time.

But it turns out, she’s not the only one with this problem, and, in fact, given the rapid increase in single-sex programs in public schools, it looks like the trouble may only be spreading. Take a look at the recently-released November 2010 Arkansas Department of Education’s Application for School Improvement Grants. It explains that Jacksonville High School (JHS) initiated The Freshman Academy “to help incoming freshmen who needed extra help with academics and social/emotional needs,” a laudable goal. But, from 2007-2010, JHS was unable to “initiate this program as designed” and now plans to revamp the program. Instead of using the program to meet its designated goals, JHS leadership used “the Academy as a dual gender reassimilation because the students were coming from gender-based feeder schools. The Academy became a chance for the students to get back together after being separated in the Jacksonville Boys Middle School and the Jacksonville Girls Middle School.” Got that? Instead of focusing on techniques that have been proven to improve academic outcomes, the school has to spend its limited resources teaching boys and girls to play well with each other.

Perhaps this outcome isn’t surprising. Social scientists have found that labeling and separating students based on almost any characteristic (e.g., sex, eye color, randomly assigned t-shirts) makes those differences even more salient to the students and produces intergroup bias. No wonder students who have been divided by sex for years need help learning how to work and learn together.

Here’s the bottom line: many of our schools are in trouble and coming out of the largest recession since the 1930s, with mounting national debt, we have limited resources. Many schools are choosing to spend those limited resources on single-sex programs despite the fact that “there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.” As a result of prioritizing single-sex classes, these schools don’t have the funds to spend on techniques that have actually been proven to improve academic outcomes, like smaller class sizes and personalized learning environments with mentors, counseling, and other supports. AND, then other schools down the line, like The Freshman Academy, are forced to spend their limited resources undoing the damage done by single-sex classes rather than, again, implementing proven techniques to expand academic achievement. At the end of the day, we are not preparing our students for the real world. After all, there are very few things one can do as a grown-up, short of joining a cloistered religious order, to be exclusively in a single-sex environment.

All of our kids deserve to reach their full potential, regardless of their sex. And, that starts with a high quality, fair education that focuses on techniques that work and teaches all students as individuals, not as stereotypes.

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