The Debate Over Single-Sex Schooling

By Janet Shibley Hyde
University of Wisconsin—Madison

A nationwide debate is raging over the topic of single-sex schooling. Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments, passed in 1972, banned sex discrimination in education and marked a giant feminist step forward. Among other things, it virtually banned single-sex classes within coeducational primary and secondary schools. Fast forward to 2006, when the U.S. Department of Education, during the administration of George W. Bush, issued regulations overturning part of Title IX by permitting single-sex classes within coeducational schools. The regulations, however, did stipulate that the single-sex classes had to have a substantial educational (or governmental) objective.

Since the weakening of Title IX regulations, single-sex classes and schools have sprung up like mushrooms across the United States. The movement has been led by two gurus, Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian. In their books, they argue that boys and girls are very different psychologically and have completely different learning styles and, therefore, must be taught differently. Boys must be taught using loud confrontation (“What’s your answer, Mr. Jackson? Give it to me!”), whereas girls need to be taught gently (“Lisa, sweetie, it’s time to open your book.”). Of course, there is little or no evidence for these claims.

For my colleagues (Diane Halpern, Lise Eliot, Rebecca Bigler, Rick Fabes, Laura Hanish, Lynn Liben, Carol Martin) and me, the crucial question is whether the single-sex classes are effective. That is, do they yield better academic results compared with coed classes? Do they offer other benefits, such as heightened self-confidence or decreased gender stereotyping? In an article published in Science in September 2011, we reviewed the existing scientific evidence, in which students in single-sex classes or schools were compared to students in coeducational classes or schools. Our conclusion: Single-sex schooling does not provide any academic benefits, and it is likely to increase gender stereotyping among both students and teachers. Numerous studies have found that, when you segregate people into separate groups, they start to stereotype (and denigrate) members of the other group, and that is just what single-sex schooling does. We called upon officials in the Obama administration to rescind the changes that had weakened Title IX.

If you want a copy of the Science article, just email me and I’ll send it. Several of us have used it in undergraduate classes and found that it sparks thought-provoking discussions. Also, my co-authors and I have founded the American Council for Coeducational Schooling (ACCES). I invite you to become a member – and there’s no charge! If you want to support coeducation by becoming a member, please contact Diane Halpern.