The New York Times article “Single-sex education is assailed in the report” is stirring up controversy over the issue of single-sex education once more, an issue that is important to many parents and the cornerstone and raison-d’etre for some schools. Excerpted below:

“The report, “The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling,” to be published in Science magazine by eight social scientists who are founders of the nonprofit American Council for CoEducational Schooling, is likely to ignite a new round of debate and legal wrangling about the effects of single-sex education.

It asserts that “sex-segregated education is deeply misguided and often justified by weak, cherry-picked or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence.”

But the strongest argument against single-sex education, the article said, is that it reduces boys’ and girls’ opportunities to work together, and reinforces sex stereotypes. “Boys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive,” the article said. “Similarly, girls who spend more time with other girls become more sex-typed.”

The authors are psychologists and neuroscientists from several universities who have researched and written on sex differences and sex roles. The Science article is not based on new research, but rather is a review of existing research and writing….

Arguing that no scientific evidence supports the idea that single-sex schooling results in better academic outcomes, the article calls on the Education Department to rescind its 2006 regulations weakening the Title IX prohibition against sex discrimination in education. Under those rules, single-sex classes may be permitted as long as they are voluntary, students have a substantially equal coeducational option and the school reasonably believes separation will produce better academic outcomes.

Russlynn H. Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, said it was reviewing the research.  “There are case studies that have been done that show some benefit of single-sex, but like lots of other educational research, it’s mixed,” she said.  “When you’re talking about separating students, treating them differently, you want to do it in a way that’s constitutional, and you want to make sure that there is adequate justification. We certainly want to safeguard against stereotyping.”

The article comes at a time when single-sex education is on the rise. There were only two single-sex public schools in the mid-1990s; today, there are more than 500 public schools in 40 states that offer some single-sex academic classes or, more rarely, are entirely single sex.

Many of them began separating the sexes because of a belief that boys and girls should be taught differently that grew out of popular books, speeches and workshops by Michael Gurian, Leonard Sax and others.

Dr. Sax, executive director of the National Association of Single Sex Public Education, was singled out for criticism in the Science article, for his teachings that boys respond better to energetic, confrontational classrooms while girls need a gentler touch. …

The authors of the article, though, say that because there is no good scientific research backing such a choice, the government cannot lawfully offer single-sex education in public schools.

The article cites a review commissioned by the Education Department, comparing single-sex and coed outcomes, concluding that, “as in previous reviews,” the results are equivocal.

The article also said that research in other countries, and data from the Program for International Student Assessment, also found little overall difference between single-sex and coed academic outcomes.

While some studies have found better outcomes from single-sex schools, the article said, the purported advantages disappear when outcomes are corrected for pre-existing differences. For example, Chicago’s Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men, a school whose high college admissions rates were praised this year by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, was subsequently criticized by the scholar Diane Ravitch as having test results that were actually lower than average on basic skills.

“This is very much a live issue, and I think it’s snowballing,” said Galen Sherwin, a staff lawyer for the Women’s Rights Project of the A.C.L.U., who is handling the Louisiana case. “I see news stories every single week about new proposals, usually based on the idea that boys and girls learn differently. Often it’s people who have attended training programs by Sax or Gurian, saying these programs will cater to boys’ and girls’ specific learning styles.”

Much of the impetus for single-sex public schooling came from popular books like Mary Pipher’s “Reviving Ophelia” and, especially, a 1992 report by the American Association of University Women, “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” But by 1998, when the association issued another report,  saying that single-sex schooling was not the solution to problems of gender equity, the pendulum had swung, with boys’ difficulties in school receiving more attention, in part because of books like Dr. Sax’s “Why Gender Matters” and Mr. Gurian’s “The Wonder of Boys.”” Read the rest of the article here.

Now, the report reported in the New York Times article is based on research in the US.  Across the Atlantic, the research on single-sex has shown different conclusions on the efficacy of single-sex education.

“The co-educational schools have twice as many potential applicants as the single-sex schools, yet the league tables are dominated by single-sex schools. Of A-levels taken by boys in 2005 at HMC independent schools, the proportion achieving a top grade was 37% at the co-ed schools but 52% at boys-only schools. The difference for girls was even more striking.

In 2003 the government published the results of a research study conducted by the University of Cambridge which showed that boys achieved higher grades if taught in single-sex classes. Because of this, increasing numbers of mixed state schools are now segregating the sexes for teaching purposes.”

More importantly however, I believe that the main thrust of new report’s argument that single-sex education should be banned because it does not promote better academic outcomes, misses the point as to why many parents choose single-sex schools for their children.

It is not necessarily proof of gender-appropriate academic instruction that parents need, it is the environment free of distractions from the opposite sex that parents want for their children, particularly for the difficult teen years when raging hormones often lead the teenagers down the road of sexual experimentation, sometimes ending in teen pregnancies.

The case for single-sex education is especially well argued by the UK Harrow Schools’ article “Single-Sex or Co-Education?“, not surprisingly since its UK founding school website states that the popularity of the schools is largely due to the single-sex education it offers. Another advantage of the single-sex educational environment is that a whole spectrum of disciplinary and emotional problems that teachers normally have to deal with related to the pressures of social interaction between the sexes, is removed leaving teachers with more energy and time to devote to academic matters.

“Every other year I do a survey of the attitudes of parents with sons at Harrow. The last survey I did showed that 96% were strongly in favour of Harrow remaining a boys-only school. Most pupils at Harrow have been to co-educational prep schools before coming to Harrow so their parents are not opposed to co-education per se. But they are opposed to it, for both sons and daughters, during their teenage years.

There is plenty of evidence that co-education distorts subject choice. At co-educational schools girls are less likely to opt for science subjects and boys are much less likely to choose English or languages at A-level. Research by Professor Caroline Gipps showed that there are hardly any boys in Britain studying English A-level in mixed comprehensive schools – an extraordinary fact. Boys in co-ed schools do not choose English because it is seen as a ‘girls’ subject’. So the presence of the opposite sex is influencing subject choice. This is a pity: pupils should be choosing subjects on the basis of their ability and interests, not their self-image.

Both boys and girls appear to do better academically at single-sex schools. The co-educational schools have twice as many potential applicants as the single-sex schools, yet the league tables are dominated by single-sex schools. Of A-levels taken by boys in 2005 at HMC independent schools, the proportion achieving a top grade was 37% at the co-ed schools but 52% at boys-only schools. The difference for girls was even more striking.

In 2003 the government published the results of a research study conducted by the University of Cambridge which showed that boys achieved higher grades if taught in single-sex classes. Because of this, increasing numbers of mixed state schools are now segregating the sexes for teaching purposes.

Caroline Gipps’ research showed that in single-sex schools there is likely to be less anxiety among boys about working hard and asking questions; in co-ed schools this was seen as something which should not be done in front of girls. Because girls mature earlier than boys and have better work habits, boys tend to be outclassed by girls in co-educational schools. Teenage boys have fragile self-esteem and they react by giving up the struggle to compete. All research shows that boys are less mature than girls from birth. This disadvantage makes boys less motivated especially when educated alongside girls, who are perceived as being cleverer and more diligent.

The Department for Education commissioned a team of educational specialists at Homerton College, Cambridge to pilot a three year project. Working with schools around the country, it examined various ways of raising boys’ level of achievement. In terms of single-sex teaching in English comprehensive schools they reported that: Pupils are almost always in favour of single-sex groupings, especially girls. Teacher opinion was divided, but most acknowledged greater levels of participation in lessons, and increased confidence amongst both sexes, in single-sex lessons.

Teachers often felt that behaviour was better in single-sex groups. Most teachers believe that boys and girls learn in different ways and should therefore be taught in different ways. Boys are keen to compete, girls learn better by co-operating. Boys tend to be over-optimistic about their academic potential, girls the reverse. Girls work harder, conform more readily and place a greater emphasis on neatness. Girls are much better at coursework. Boys benefit from tight structures and precise goals. Girls have superior verbal abilities, boys have higher numerical abilities. Boys prefer different sorts of books in literature courses. Marion Cox, Head of English at the co-ed Cotswold School in Leicestershire, decided to do an experiment and teach boys and girls in single-sex classes. The result was that her staff were able to adjust their teaching styles specifically to suit boys or to suit girls, rather than striking a middle path between them. The number of boys scoring in the high range marks of the Key Stage 3 tests rose by a dramatic 400%. Boys found they could relax and express themselves more without girls present, and girls found the same. With a more suitable teaching style and a more focused set of pupils, results improved.

These days teenage pupils have a pretty active social life in the holidays, half terms and during frequent exeat weekends. They do not need to have girls in the classroom in order to learn about the opposite sex. All boys and girls schools do activities with each other – dinners, dances, plays, joint musical events and joint plays.

Sport is much stronger in single-sex schools. Boys and girls do different sports at most schools. If you halve the number of boys at a school you lose strength in depth and you can only field half as many teams. In co-educational schools, boys find it hard to compete with girls in cultural activities such as music. An average musical boy at a boys’ school is much more likely to be in the orchestra than he would be at a co-educational school.

It is sometimes argued that it is ‘unnatural’ to segregate the sexes in education. In fact there is nothing natural or normal about putting hundreds of adolescent girls and boys together, particularly in a boarding school. My colleagues in co-educational schools have to deal with a spectrum of disciplinary and emotional problems arising from their co-educational status and this is a distraction from the main purpose of a school. Teenagers can do without the pressures of living alongside members of the opposite sex at a time in their lives of physical change and emotional vulnerability.

Because of the large number of boys’ schools who take girls into their sixth form, almost all girls’ schools lose some of their best students after GCSEs (for example, in London to Westminster, Latymer Upper and Highgate). This is tough on these girls’ schools and all have reacted by improving the provision for sixth formers as a way of encouraging them to stay. Some girls clearly thrive in their new co-educational environment but others regret their choice, finding it harder to work effectively in a school which is dominated by boys and boyish attitudes. ..”

You might also like to read more on the topic at our and other article pages:

By Aileen Kawagoe


Please note Harrow School, UK is the founding school for Harrow International Schools, and runs two different types of summer courses open to children aged 8 – 18 from anywhere during the school holidays. Click here for more information about these courses

English Language Courses

English courses are run by BABSSCo (a wholly owned subsidiary of Harrow School) and offer English Language training for children whose first language is not English. These take place in the summer holidays and are residential. They are open to children from anywhere, and are a very cost-effective and extremely good way of helping your child learn English.