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How Same Sex Schools Affect Students

by Van Thompson, studioD

Single-sex schools have been around for generations, and many parents and educators believe that single-sex education eliminates distractions and allows children to flourish. However, there is an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of these schools and the impact they have on both academic achievement and social skills. Some evidence points toward significant gains for children -- particularly girls -- in same-sex schools, while other studies point to an increase in gender stereotyping and problematic behaviors.

Gender Differences

Some proponents of single-sex education argue that it affects girls and boys differently. The authors of the book "Failing at Fairness," for example, analyzed several studies looking at the effects of same-sex schools. They found that girls tend to flourish in same-sex settings, while boys' academic performance is unchanged or, in some cases, slightly worse. This may be because boys interfere with girls' learning, while girls create a more constructive environment. Or, it could be that schools targeting girls and boys use different educational approaches; perhaps the approaches used by girls' schools are more effective.

STEM Achievement

Careers in science, technology, engineering and math are among the highest-paid, but women are underrepresented in these STEM careers. In her book, "Delusions of Gender," Cordelia Fine points out that girls' achievement in these subjects begins to diminish in middle school. A number of factors are at play here, including stereotypes that emphasize that women are bad at math. Stereotype threat, which occurs when a person under-performs when exposed to stereotypes about her group, can greatly diminish math and science scores, according to Fine. Single-sex education, however, may reduce the effects of stereotype threat. A 2011 study published in the "Journal of Educational Research" found that girls in same-sex classrooms were not susceptible to stereotype threat, and a 2011 study published in "Sex Roles" found that girls who attend single-sex schools tend to perform better in STEM-related classes.

Gender Stereotyping

Some single-sex education programs develop their curriculum around gender stereotypes by, for example, emphasizing that boys need more active classrooms and girls need more nurturing learning environments. Single-sex education may increase students' beliefs in gender stereotypes, which can lead to problematic relationships with the other sex and can increase the effects of stereotype threat when students leave school. A 2011 study published in "Science," for example, found that children who attend single-sex schools are more likely to believe gender stereotypes than students who don't.

Academic Outcomes

While both sides of the single-sex education argument claim that their data is irrefutable, the data on academic achievement is extremely mixed. A 2012 working paper posted on "Social Science Research Network" found that single-sex education did not increase academic achievement in either sex. Conversely, the "Sex Roles" study found that girls in single-sex schools experienced an increase in math and science scores but were no more likely to choose math and science careers. An analysis of several studies in "Still Failing at Fairness" found that boys' scores across subjects tended to drop slightly in single-sex schools, while girls' scores increased significantly.

About the Author

Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.