Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Thoughts on Single-Sex Schools

Samantha Abrams's picture

Editor's note: Samantha Abrams is a rising senior at Dartmouth College. She interned at the Learning First Alliance during the spring of 2010.

The recent phenomenon of single-sex public schools prompts the question of whether these schools are better than co-ed schools at preparing students academically and socially for the future.

There are a variety of academic arguments that proponents of single-sex schools make in favor of all-boys and all-girls schools. One of these arguments is that students are able to concentrate better in class when they are not being distracted by members of the opposite sex. This argument, of course, assumes that members of the opposite sex are more distracting to students than members of their own sex. As a student who was recently in the K-12 school system, I can say that this statement is not inherently true; while members of the two sexes have different ways of distracting each other, they don’t necessarily distract each other more or less than the other sex.

Proponents of single-sex schools also make social arguments for these schools. They say: there is less peer pressure; students feel more comfortable; students become more confident; students develop stronger same-sex relationships; and classroom behavior is better. I counter these arguments, saying: the social pressures from people of the same sex are not fewer, just different; different students feel comfortable in different types of environments; while students may develop stronger same-sex relationships, they miss out on the opportunity to make vital friendships with the opposite-sex in single-sex schools; and, better classroom behavior is not necessarily worth the detrimental social effects that same-sex schools cause in other areas.

Advocates of single-sex schools also argue that teachers at these schools are able to tailor their teaching more specifically to the different learning-styles of the opposite sexes. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE) argues that, because of the incongruent brain development patterns of boys and girls, the opposite sexes reach their highest level of academic achievement through different teaching strategies. They say girls generally perform better in school but are more critical of themselves, while boys are more confident in their abilities but actually do worse in school. Therefore, says NASSPE, teachers need to encourage girls more and bring boys back down to reality.

Critics of single-sex schools argue that such specialized teaching can force girls and boys into society’s socially constructed gender roles and reinforce gender stereotypes. This leads to a contradiction: One of the leading arguments for single-sex schools is that they break down gender stereotypes. Single-sex school supporters argue that the influence and pressure of the opposite gender in co-ed schools force kids into artificial gender categories.

But maybe it isn’t a contradiction at all. One could argue that, in both single-sex and co-ed schools, pressure from teachers and other students can force children into certain gender roles. The determining factor isn’t the gender composition of the school, but rather the values that are promoted in the school.