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Single-Sex Education Will Not "Save" Minority Boys

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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February 8, 2012

Imagine you’re a principal confronted with these facts: according to a 2010 report, the dropout rates for Black and Latino males are well above 50 percent in most cities, and Black and Latino males are less likely than any other demographic to enroll in or graduate from college. What do you do? A) throw your hands up in disgust and frustration; B) institute single-sex classes; or C) research what actually works in improving student performance?

A number of schools across the country are choosing B, sex segregation. While no reliable data exist, proponents have estimated that there are between 300 and 500 single-sex classrooms, up from 11 in 2002.

Fortunately, Pedro Noguera, director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University and a respected researcher on education for children of color, chose option C. In an article recently published in Education Week, Noguera explains that “no research supports the notion that separating young men is the best way to meet their academic and social needs.” He adds that “none of [single-sex education supporters’] claims about innate learning differences have been supported by neuroscientists who actually study the human brain, and their ideas about the types of teaching strategies that constitute ‘best practices’ for boys are also unsupported by scientific evidence.”

Oops. Details. So what pseudoscience are the proponents of single-sex education spouting? Well, Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian, its most widely cited advocates, train teachers to believe some scary stuff and to teach accordingly. For example:

  • Teachers should shout at boys and speak softly to girls, because girls have better hearing and are more easily distracted by loud noise.
  • Boys do well under stress, and girls do badly, so girls should never be given time limits on tests. Girls should take their shoes off in class because this helps them think better.
  • Boys should receive strict discipline based on asserting power over them. Young boys can be spanked. Girls must never be spanked.

As for the actual science, Noguera has been looking at schools that work. He identified 20 New York City schools—many that enroll students who are predominantly from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds—where the graduation rate for Black and Latino boys exceeded 80 percent (by comparison, the graduation rate for NYC youth generally is 65 percent). Factors that contributed to schools’ success included:

  • Strong, positive relationships between teachers and students
  • A personalized learning environment with mentors, counseling, and other supports
  • A peer culture that “reinforces the value of learning, and where character, ethics, and moral development are far more important than rigid discipline policies”
  • Strong and effective school leaders, who are not authoritarian or intimidating. “On the contrary, students [at successful schools] report that principals … are regarded more like big brothers and father figures.”

Absent from Noguera’s conclusions is the idea that schools need to be single-sex in order for Black and Latino boys — or indeed, any of their students — to succeed. Take that, Sax, Gurian, and your spank-the-boys pedagogy.

Noguera’s study comes on the heels of a Science article that finds, “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.”

When it comes to public education, there is no doubt that we are in a crisis, particularly in terms of low-income and minority students. But, as these two studies show, coeducation is not the problem, and sex segregation is not the solution.

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