Since the 1980s, when concern over the state of public education became a popular topic in discourse, there has been increasing interest in experimenting with the way public school students are taught. The belief that gender-segregated education benefited primary and secondary school students became popular in 1992, with the publication of the popular book, “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” and this belief was later echoed by researchers who studied boys, including Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax. The number of American public schools offering gender-segregated environments has grown from two in the 1990s to over 500 in the 21st century, but the pros and cons of these environments continue to be debated.
Neuroscientists have found that primary school boys develop at least a year later than girls, and supporters of single-sex education note that boys are more often disciplined and suspended than girls in traditional gender-mixed classrooms. There are other subtle differences in boys’ early intellectual expressions, for example drawings of actions that use few colors, as opposed to girls’ typical drawings of objects and people with warm, bright colors, that may cause boys’ contributions in the classroom to be devalued. Boys labeled with behavioral problems who are put in gender-segregated classrooms show improvements in their behavior, and, in many cases, their test scores.
Gender-segregated teaching based on neuroscience research emphasizes physical action and assertiveness for boys and communal, egalitarian environments and personal sharing for girls. Some feminists and civil rights activists have expressed concern that these methods reinforce gender stereotypes. They also point out that neuroscience shows that boys and girls are more alike than they are different.
Because boys are disciplined less often in single-sex environments, they report a rise in self-esteem and feeling valued by the community. Because many boys grow up without fathers in the home, the all-male environment gives them a positive notion that being a boy is “okay” and that they are loved by their adult supervisors.
Girls in gender-segregated environments are more likely to participate and share their ideas in class, and research has shown that women educated in gender-segregated environments are more likely to pursue professions in math and science. They are less likely to suffer from the significant drop in self-esteem that most girls experience as they approach secondary school.
Supporters of gender-segregated classrooms also point out that secondary students in the gender-segregated environments have respite from a heavily sexualized youth culture that deemphasizes academic success.
Critics of gender segregation point out that these separate environments prevent boys and girls from learning to tolerate each other’s differences, which is necessary in a free, democratic society.
While research on gender segregation in public schools is relatively new, there is significant data from Catholic schools, which have a long history of providing gender-segregated education. The information on the benefits of separate gender classrooms for middle class students is mixed, but there is a strong, positive correlation between academic success and gender segregation for low-income and minority students.
Educational studies are conducting more research on gender segregation in public schools. As of 2006, only 40 studies were considered reliable, and of these, 40 percent found significant test score increases for gender-segregated classrooms, 45 percent found no difference in test scores between gender-segregated and co-ed classrooms, 6 percent found test score increases for only one gender, and 8 percent found test score decreases for gender-segregated classrooms. A publicized study in 2011, funded by the ACLU, found that the students who saw test score increases in single-sex environments were already well below average on test scores and that they also showed increased sex-typed behavior, with more aggression in boys and less aggression in girls.
- The New York Times Education: Teaching Boys and Girls Separately
- The New York Times: Boys and Girls Together, Taught Separately in Public School
- The New York Times: Federal Rules Back Single-Sex Public Education
- The New York Times Upfront: Should public schools offer single-sex education?
- The New York Times: Single-Sex Education Is Assailed in Report
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