Education Single-sex Education
by
Margaret L. Signorella
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0166

Introduction

Single-sex education refers to both classes and schools that have only one sex, defined by a biological classification. The alternative, in which both sexes are present in class or in the school as a whole, is referred to as “coeducation” or a “mixed-sex environment.” In the latter half of the 20th century, many countries moved away from single-sex education as a predominant mode of education, particularly in the public sectors. At the same time, issues of educational equity, whether based in gender, ethnicity, or social class, have been associated with a pushback against coeducation. Many comparisons have been made in many countries to test whether there is an advantage to one gender context or another, yet the conclusions remain under dispute. Outcomes most frequently assessed are mathematics, science, and verbal performance and attitudes; educational aspirations; gender stereotyping; and self-concept. In the United States, single-sex public options, whether in one classroom or in an entire school, have increased as a result in changes in federal education regulations. Those same regulations, which preclude random assignment, make it difficult to make an appropriate comparison of the outcomes in relation to different gender contexts. Major areas of contention are that in many cases, the single-sex class or school may be different in ways that go beyond gender, and that the students and their families who choose a single-sex option may vary in crucial ways, such as having a higher- than-average commitment to education. Most of the reviews of the literature to date that encompass research from across the globe are considered to show little to no difference or are deemed inconclusive or contradictory. Research from schools in which random assignment was conducted, if possible, or that employ statistical or methodological controls to account for preexisting differences or confounding factors may help resolve the controversy. Popular views of gender and single-sex education as important determinants of student success are, however, in conflict with the results of research showing little difference and much inconsistency.

General Overviews

There are few general resources to help understand the theory and research surrounding the disputes over single-sex education. Some of the papers in the Reference Works and Anthologies sections can also serve as an overview, but those tend to be more technical and specialized. The works in this section were chosen for their broader assessment of the issue from multiple sides and with historical context. Liben 2015, Riordan 1990, and Salomone 2003 spanned the largest historical periods, whereas Gill 2004 (Australia) and Bigler and Signorella 2011 (United States) focused mostly on the 20th century. The historical perspectives help in understanding the roots of single-sex education across cultures and why single-sex education began to decline in popularity before experiencing a resurgence. Bigler and Signorella 2011 attempts to quantify the increases in single-sex classes and schools in the United States and cites several reasons for the increases, including concerns about gender equity and poor educational outcomes in schools serving low-income youth of color. Although sympathetic to educational equity issues, they were not convinced that there is empirical support for gender-separated schools or classrooms. Riordan 1990, Riordan 2015, and Salomone 2003 are proponents of single-sex education, although not necessarily for all students. They emphasize structural and cultural aspects of education that they feel are improved in single-sex classes or schools, with Salomone drawing heavily on several of Riordan’s studies as well as other research. Riordan 1990 and Salomone 2003 have the most extensive discussion of the arguments that members of disadvantaged groups may benefit from single-sex schooling. Riordan 2015 provides an overview of all justifications in support of single-sex schools but questions the value of single-sex classes within mixed-sex schools. Liben 2015 scrutinizes the disagreements from the perspectives of science and of values. She noted that some proponents of single-sex schooling take a “gender essentialist” approach, which leads those advocates to conclude that if there are deep and biologically based gender differences, then those differences must be reflected in educational practices. She reviewed some of the most frequently cited works that take a gender-essentialist approach. Liben also identified choice as another key value mentioned by promoters of single-sex education and discussed the clashes that occur when these different types of evidence (e.g., scientific research, values) are used in the public arena. The radio debate between Hyde and Sax in 2011 is illustrative of the challenge in reconciling the views.

  • Bigler, R. S., and M. L. Signorella. 2011. Single-sex education: New perspectives and evidence on a continuing controversy. Sex Roles 65:659–669.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11199-011-0046-xE-mail Citation »

    Also serving as an introduction to Part 1 of a special issue on single-sex schooling, the paper provides a recent historical overview in the United States, and also reviews the methodological and political concerns that have accompanied legal changes in education policy in the United States.

  • Debate over Single-Sex Schooling. 13 October 2011. RadioTimes with Marty Moss-Coane.

    E-mail Citation »

    The audio recording of a debate between Dr. Janet Hyde and Dr. Leonard Sax over the appropriateness of offering single-sex public schools is a good example of the disparate positions and approaches seen in this area of controversy.

  • Gill, J. 2004. Beyond the great divide: Single-sex or coeducation? Sydney: Univ. of New South Wales Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A well-written overview that may be useful for parents or non-educators in understanding the controversy. The focus is on Australia but includes comparisons to many other countries.

  • Liben, L. S. 2015. Probability values and human values in evaluating single-sex education. Sex Roles 72:401–426.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11199-014-0438-9E-mail Citation »

    Liben examines single-sex schooling history in the United States and then surveys the state of current controversy from scientific and values-oriented perspectives. This article is a good overview from the perspective of someone who has serious concerns about single-sex public schools or classes.

  • Riordan, C. 1990. Girls and boys in school: Together or separate? New York: Teachers College.

    E-mail Citation »

    Begins with historical and sociological overviews of the education of boys and girls in ancient Greece and Rome, medieval and later Europe, and the United States from the colonial era to the present. The later chapters present outcomes from shorter- and longer-term comparisons of different school gender environments and their correlates.

  • Riordan, C. 2015. Single-sex schools: A place to learn. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    E-mail Citation »

    For someone unfamiliar with the topic, this book would be a good general introduction. Riordan also provides a brief but useful recent historical and cross-cultural overview of single-sex versus coeducational trends in education, and an up-to-date and international overview of the research.

  • Salomone, R. C. 2003. Same, different, equal: Rethinking single-sex schooling. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press

    E-mail Citation »

    Although the focus is on single-sex education in the United States, Salomone draws upon numerous comparisons across the globe in recounting the debates over the value of single-sex education. She sides with the need for single-sex options in some circumstances.

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