Does A Single-Sex Education Make You Smarter?


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I spent the last four years of my life in a private, catholic, all girls college preparatory high school and while one may say that I missed out on the standard, social facets of a typical high school experience; I would argue till death that my all girls high school experience was something I wouldn't trade for the world. Contrary to popular belief, the 500 girls that went to my school were not closeted-bible-loving-anti-social-feminists and we did, in fact, socialize with members of the opposite sex. Nonetheless, it has been an on-going, contentious issue for society as to whether a single-sex or co-ed environment provides a superior education. So, will a single-sex education make you smarter?

We must first come to realize that while males and females are not two different species, that are very different when it comes to learning, expression, and overall being. And so, one can argue that a single-sex education can more accurately focus the learning needs of the targeted sex; but does that secluded sex suffer from the lack of the opposite?

Many sociologists agree that females are, "unable to perform if they are not at least 50% of a class, they feel pressured by stereotype threat and the potential for gender bias, and so a 100% same-sex class would seem to unlock the potential for all females" (Campbell 7). From my own experience, I can vouch for the truth of the previous statement. I had classmates in high school that flourished in an all-girls setting, by allowing themselves to say and do things they wouldn't have done in the company of boys. I, myself, felt more open and confident to participate in an all girls setting. So, while the single-sex atmosphere allowed young women at my school to branch out and express themselves without the restriction of the opposite sex, some may argue that it could have instilled an anxiety associated with the opposite sex.

Penn State's very own, psychology professor Lynn S. Liben claims there is no academic benefit to a single-sex education, "Our examination of the existing studies leads us to conclude that there is not scientific evidence for positive effects of single-sex schooling. That's not to say that academic outcomes are definitively worse, but neither are they definitively better. Advantages have not been demonstrated."

But then we have studies that show the numbers.

NCEA Pass Rate for Fifth Form Students by School Decile

Decile

Co-ed

Sex: Boys

Single

Sex: Boys

Co-ed

Sex: Girls

Single

Sex: Girls

1

21.4%

41.5%

25.5%

40.4%

2

27.9%

30.4%

34.9%

57.7%

3

35.6%

43.1%

41.4%

67.7%

4

39.7%

49.3%

52.9%

58.1%

5

46.0%

56.8%

58.6%

63.2%

6

50.3%

57.6%

60.6%

68.9%

7

54.7%

59.5%

64.9%

76.6%

8

59.6%

68.7%

70.8%

75.5%

9

64.4%

69.3%

75.8%

81.5%

10

68.8%

80.9%

77.0%

88.5%

Avg

48.3%

65.6%

58.0%

76.0%

 

It is very clear by the above chart that both sexes academically benefit from a single-sex education.

The National Foundation for Educational Research conducted a study in which they observed and calculated of 2,954 high schools (both co-ed and single-sex) throughout England and found, "Even after controlling for students' academic ability and other background factors, both girls and boys did significantly better in single-sex schools than in coed schools. In this age group (senior high school), the benefits were larger and more consistent across the board for girls than for boys. Specifically, girls at all levels of academic ability did better in single-sex schools than in coed schools; whereas for boys, the beneficial effect of single-sex schools was significant only for boys at the lower end of the ability scale. For higher-achieving boys, there was no statistically significant effect of school type on performance, positive or negative."

Studies show that women suffer from a stereotype threat in math and science, meaning that in the fields of math and science women are more apprehensive to perform due to their perceived inferiority to men. Perhaps that is why girls at my high school were so confident in their work, there were no boys to do better and perhaps this is why women are always found to do better in single-sex school environments. 

Another factor in this issue is that most single-sex schools are private, and require an entrance test. Therefore, one can argue that the students in single-sex schools are already at an advantage. But does that single-sex environment only further the intelligence of the "elite" students in private education?

Again, Penn State's Lynn Liben denies any benefits of single-sex schooling, "Kids' own occupational aspirations are going to be limited, and there could be long-term consequences where, for example, girls are used to being in roles only among other girls, then they have to face the real world where that's not the case."

It is clear to me that the issue of single-sex education juggles an academic as well as a psychological/social side. A article published by ABC News focuses on the negative effects of single-sex education when it comes to the social aspect. A 2010 study on two separate pre-school classes displays negative, social affects on students, "In one class, the teacher used gender-specific language to address the children. The other teacher did not. After just two weeks, the researchers reported that children who had the teacher using sex-specific language played less with children of the other sex." And so, some may argue that single-sex education promotes gender-issued stereotypes.

At the end of the day is it up to the parents: sacrifice your child's appreciation and cooperation with the opposite sex for a more specialized, concentrated academic environment? 

My proposed solution would be to create co-ed, public schools that separate the sexes for the subjects of math and science (debatably the two hardest, most demanding subjects taught in high school and the subjects that evoke the stereotype threat) and create co-ed environments for all the other subjects. Then, teachers could focus on targeting the needs for each sex when it comes to math and science, and incorporate both males and females for all other aspects of high school life. This utopian schooling system would essentially provide the best of both worlds. 

 

3 Comments

I'm so glad somebody wrote about this. I went to an all-girls private school from Kindergarten to my senior year. For the most part, I loved it and I was happy up until my sophomore or junior year. I was a bit of a nerd in middle school and I was perfectly content to focus on my schoolwork: it was okay that I didn't really know any boys. This being said, the social dynamics at an all girls school are obviously very different, as you know. Some people might think we had less drama because there were no boys to fight over, but this is not the case. And while other kids were learning how to socialize and associate with the opposite sex, we were not. Many girls in my class graduated high school with little to no friends of the opposite sex. They had no way to meet them. This was one of the most frustrating parts of all girls school for me: watching girls become socially inept. My friends and I made a point to get out of what they called the "Ellis Bubble" and make friends outside of school, but girls who didn't were clearly socially behind. Of course they could write brilliant essays, but how far will that get you with no social skills? How will these girls who are introverted and awkward ever nail a job interview? Social skills are a vital part of succeeding in the working world and life in general. Girls were so focused on getting perfect grades that they didn't bother to foster meaningful relationships with others, especially not of the opposite sex. The real world is not all-girls, and this is why I agree with your argument that we should have co-ed schools. I think you brought up a great point that math and science classes should be taught separately. I noticed you wrote about the argument that girls are hesitant to participate in class when there are boys present, and I used to think this was silly. But when I came to Penn State and attended my first college class and first class with males present, I found myself feeling exactly this way. I was shy to raise my hand for the first few classes. But I quickly got over it. I came to Penn State largely because I was searching for something that was the exact opposite of my high school experience. I absolutely agree with your proposal for schools because the research shows that girls and boys learn differently - but we need to learn how to socialize with each other.

This is a really great blog topic! I don't believe that single-sex education leads to a better education because I think it leads to stronger stereotypes. I think in any circumstance when people are placed in a setting with little diversity, there will be more room for discrimination. This is also supported by Richard Farbes, professor and director at the School of Social and Family Dynamics, who says there is evidence "that single-sex classes can be detrimental – for instance, the more time that male and female students spend apart, the more the stereotypes about the sexes are reinforced." The same goes to segregated schools in the 1940's and 50s. Science may prove that schools segregated by race produce better learning environments, because there is less diversity, and the students are more comfortable around each other, however is it ethical to teach like that?

This is topic has many layers (as you pointed out) and is very interesting. I went to a public school and wouldn't change a thing about my "pre-college" education, but a nearby Prep school always seemed to produce students going to very elite schools. This could be because first, they are very wealthy and can afford to pay full tuition at some of the most expensive schools in the country. Another option could be because without the need to impress an opposite sex, students ask more questions, feel less concerned about how they are perceived by their peers, and more concerned about their grades.

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