Single-sex schools: Are they better for kids?

Single-Sex Schools Single-sex schools are showing up in the news again. As the new school year ramps up, parents and educators are considering how to improve academic outcomes for their students, and single-sex education becomes a topic for debate. In January 2009, I wrote about Dr. Leonard Sax's notion that boys and girls should start school at different ages, but he also advocates for single-sex curricula because he believes that the male and female nervous systems respond differently to different teaching styles. But even he admits that there isn't a "one size fits all" solution when it comes to deciding whether boys and girls should share a classroom. In a recent article in Science magazine, Diane Halpern and her colleagues reviewed the evidence for and against the benefits of single-sex schools.

Do single-sex schools produce better academic outcomes?

Not according to the US Department of Education. Or the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat of Ontario. Or a number of "large-scale reviews" cited by Halpern that were conducted in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The results of these studies typically show small differences, if any, between single-sex schools and coeducational learning environments. The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat of Ontario published a review by Dr. Serge Demers and Carole Bennett, who concluded that a focus on student motivation, diversified teaching practices, and teacher training, rather than single-sex schools, were the most important factors in promoting student success. Halpern noted as well that at least some of the studies finding higher grades in single-sex schools were done with students who had higher grades than their peers prior to enrolling in the segregated classrooms! In short, there isn't compelling evidence that single-sex schools lead to significant improvements in academic achievement for either boys or girls, although some studies have found some small benefits of some of these programs.

But boys' and girls' brains develop differently, don't they?

Halpern argues that the main differences between the brains of boys and girls are that boys have larger brain volumes and girls' brain growth is complete at a younger age. Neither of these factors are linked to learning. Although other studies have found additional gender differences in brain development, Halpern argues that "experience is the greatest architect of the brain", and that those differences could have occurred from upbringing rather than gender.

Halpern also noted that segregating children based on any characteristic increases biases between the groups and reduces opportunities for the groups to work together. Other researchers have found that boys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive, and  girls engaged in more stereotypically feminine play. So ... according to Halpern, single-sex schools may lead to increases in gender bias (sexism) and exaggeration of gender-role behaviour!

So should parents even consider a single-sex school program?

The impact (positive or negative) of single-sex schooling doesn't seem to be as great as one might think. And it's possible that single-sex classrooms (maybe math class, for example) within a mixed-gender school might provide the benefits of one program without the limitations of the other. At any rate, I think it's important for parents to consider other factors (such as the quality and approach of the teaching staff, the expectations of the curriculum, and the resources available at the school) when choosing either a single-sex or a coeducational program.

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