Explaining The Research On Single-Gender Classes

May 15, 2014

Students at the all-girls Ferrell Preparatory Academy in Tampa. Ariana Jerome, Shawna Kent, Elena Postlewait and Destiny Jackson all say they prefer their all-girls school to the co-ed schools they previously attended.
Credit John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging single-gender schools and classes in Hillsborough County. The ACLU claims the programs reinforce gender stereotypes and that the evidence supporting single-gender schooling is based on “junk science.”

So what does the science say? The results are mixed, as is often the case in education research.

Two large reviews of single-gender education research found little evidence that boys and girls do better in school, long-term, if they are separated.

University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Janet Hyde was part of a team which reviewed 184 single-gender education studies earlier this year. Hyde is also the director of research for a national co-education advocacy group.

In the best-designed studies, Hyde found no evidence students benefit from single-gender education across 14 outcomes, including math performance, self-esteem, attitudes about math and science and more.

“Often it will work in the first year,” Hyde said, “because everybody’s enthusiastic about it. They recruit the best teachers, and so on. But after the first year, when the novelty wears off, it doesn’t really produce any benefits.”

The programs are also expensive and can cause logistical problems, Hyde said, because districts must offer three versions of every class: for males, females and both sexes. That can be difficult for smaller school districts.

Stetson University education professor Kathy Piechura-Couture has been advising single-gender programs at Woodward Avenue Elementary in Deland and is on the board of a national single-gender education advocacy group.

Single-gender classes allow teachers to better tailor their lessons for the needs of each student, she said. Her experience is that single-gender classes do have benefits.

“From the last 12 years of research we’ve done, we’ve never had a mixed-gender class statistically outperform a single-gender class,” she said. “On many occasions we’ve had the single-gender classes outperform the mixed-gender classes.”

Advocates say they’ve found girls are more likely to participate in science lessons in single-gender classes, while boys are more likely to try foreign languages, drama and arts.

One of the problems with researching single-gender education — which Piechura-Couture concedes– is that it is difficult to design scientifically-sound studies. Schools can’t randomly assign students to single-gender classes because the law says the programs must be voluntary.

So, many studies have trouble accounting for factors such as parents who choose single-gender programs might be more likely to be involved in their kids’ education. Other studies compared single-gender private schools, whose students are more likely to be wealthy, to co-educational public schools.

A 2012 study looked at South Korea schools, where students are randomly assigned to single-gender and co-educational schools. That study found single-gender graduates were more likely to attend a four-year college.

“We find that single-sex schools produce a higher percentage of graduates who attended four-year colleges and a lower percentage of graduates who attended two-year junior colleges than do coeducational schools,” the study’s authors wrote. “The positive effects of single-sex schools remain substantial, even after we take into account various school-level variables, such as teacher quality, the student-teacher ratio, the proportion of students receiving lunch support, and whether the schools are public or private.”

There is no research showing students in single-gender programs perform worse than mixed-gender peers. Piechura-Couture says parents should have the choice of single-gender classes, even if research can’t prove an advantage. Hyde argues federal law doesn’t allow that.

“If there’s no difference between the two,” Hyde said, “then we really — to avoid sex discrimination — need to use co-ed classes.”

Other studies have concluded more research is needed on the long-term benefits of single-gender education, such as a 2005 report by the American Institutes for Research for the U.S. Department of Education.

“Overall there’s some positive findings in the research,” said Sara Mead, a policy analyst with D.C.-based Bellwether Education Partners, “but it’s really mixed and overall there’s not a lot of really high-quality research.”

Want to know what the students think? We spoke with students in single-gender programs in Tallahassee and Tampa in January.