The XX Factor

Blue Is for Boys, Red Hearts for Girls

Do girls really benefit from single-sex education?


The idea of putting boys and girls in separate classrooms certainly is not new—private schools have been dividing the genders for eons. But lately, more and more public schools are opting for single-sex education. The ACLU is fighting against the trend, and already some programs have been dropped. But there are still plenty of educators advocating that separate-but-equal is better for everyone.

The AP has an interesting report on this growing conflict, which really ramped up in 2006 when the Department of Education relaxed restrictions on single-sex classrooms. In 2002, there were only about a dozen public schools that had separate classrooms, and now it’s estimated that there are roughly 500 schools that have at least some same-sex classrooms. The interest in teaching the sexes separately grew largely out of research that showed that boys, especially minority boys, didn’t do as well on tests as girls and graduated at lower rates. But the idea is that same-sex ed is supposed to benefit both boys and girls equally.

Arguments for keeping the sexes separate include that divided classrooms allow both groups to concentrate more because they’re not distracted by flirting. Seriously? It’s hard to imagine that a significant number of kids are failing tests and not learning to read because they’re too busy singing “Jack and Emma sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” There are other arguments, of course, including that single-sex classrooms are popular with kids and lead to increased self-confidence, but the research done to support those theories is deeply flawed.

Diane Halpern, who is a former president of the American Psychological Association, led a review of previous research and found there is no measurable benefit to single-sex education. She also says that not only is there no upside, but there’s also plenty of downside: problems arise when you begin segregating kids—like an increase in stereotyping. For anyone who knows anything about America’s history with racial segregation, this makes a lot of sense! On the face of it, these gender divisions may look different than the racial discrimination of the past, but from a legal perspective there’s not much of a distinction. This is a key part of what the ACLU is arguing in its fight against divided classrooms. After all, Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in education.

While the legality of these classrooms is obviously critically important, most of us just want to know whether single-sex schooling improves education or creates further inequality by reinforcing gender stereotypes (or both). So which is it?

Dr. Leonard Sax, who founded the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, argues that segregated classrooms can keep kids from getting pigeonholed in traditional roles. He tells the AP, “We want more girls engaged in robotics and computer programming and physics and engineering. We want more boys engaged in poetry and creative writing and Spanish language.” In theory that sounds great, but how much is that actually happening in practice? The AP went inside single-sex classrooms at Idaho’s Middleton Heights Elementary, and what they found didn’t look all that revolutionary:

In the single-sex classes, teachers use microphones that allow them to electronically adjust the tone of their voice to match the level that research suggests is best for boys. When preparing for a test, the boys may go for a run, or engage in some other activity, while the girls are more likely to do calming exercises, such as yoga.

Okay, so that’s maybe not the worst thing imaginable, but might it be more beneficial to teach some of the boys to learn to calm themselves down using yoga and to encourage some girls to run around more?

According to the school’s principal, Robin Gilbert, the in-classroom environment is driven by what the kids are interested in and by the curriculum, which is the same for both sexes. How does that play out? For one thing, their classrooms look different. The boys have blue chalkboards and one third grade room was decorated with a camping theme, while over in the girls’ classrooms, walls were covered with red paper hearts or an “under the sea” mermaid display. All of which is … not terribly inspiring.

That’s not to say that different kids don’t have different learning styles and that it’s not worth trying to appeal to kids in a way that gets their attention. In an ideal world, these schools would have the resources to cater more specifically to kids with different temperaments. Maybe instead of presuming all boys need to run before a test, they could sort the kids by finding out which ones—boys or girls—benefit from being more active and which ones thrive in a quieter, more introspective environment. If we instead just give in to what we assume girls and boys are stereotypically interested in, it doesn’t change anything; it only reinforces the problems we already have—and risks alienating a lot of kids who don’t fit neatly into gender stereotypes.