Resolved: Single-gender classrooms would improve the quality of education in American public schools.
For part 1 of this analysis, click here.
The "Problem"It seems that American students are failing to live up to their educational expectations. Of course for years, researchers have been studying the perceived short-comings in order to ascertain and assign causes. Recent research has increasingly focused on gender-based performance. Differences in gender performance in education are observed in a number of empirical studies which have prompted many to find the reason why.
Resolutional SolvencyThe resolution claims single-gender class rooms would improve the quality of education.
From the vantage point of those working within and experiencing the single-sex context, the positive effects are apparent. Likewise, interviews conducted by Hubbard and Datnow (2005) of students and staff in California schools offering single-sex classes revealed that both groups felt that a major contribution to student success was the freedom from distraction from the opposite sex. In 2008, a U.S. Department of Education study found that “both principals and teachers believed that the main benefits of single-sex schooling are decreasing distractions to learning and improving student achievement.” (Hutchison & Mikulski, 2012). As part of a longitudinal study of Australian secondary schools, which had been single-sex schools and then converted to co-ed schools over a two-year period, interviews with teachers and students indicate that girls appeared to do better socially in a single-sex class (Jackson & Smith, 2000). Teachers who worked in single-sex classes and schools reported fewer discipline problems to Gurian and Henley (2001), and administrators and teachers in Florida single-sex schools reported dramatic improvement in student performance (Isensee & Vasquez, 2012).
But even if you doubt the expert opinions of the educators and administrators who work directly with students and witness, first-hand, their social and intellectual development, then consider the work of Hyunjoon Park, et al of the University of Pennsylvania who undertook a balanced study of same-sex classrooms in Seoul, Korea. The Park study had the unique advantage of assessing the educational development of students randomly chosen to attend either same-sex or coeducational classes with not opt-out option.
In this study, we have assessed causal effects of single-sex schools on college entrance exam scores and college attendance rates by exploiting a unique feature of education in Seoul, Korea in which students are randomly assigned to single-sex or coeducational high schools. Our study is the first to assess causal links between single-sex schools and educational outcomes rather than associations that may in substantial part reflect student selection of school types. We have investigated the random nature of student assignment and found comparable socioeconomic backgrounds and prior academic achievement of students attending single-sex high schools and coeducational high schools. Our analyses show that single-sex schools are causally linked with both college entrance exam scores and college-attendance rates for both boys and girls. Attending all-boys schools or all-girls schools rather than attending coeducational schools is significantly associated with higher average scores on Korean and English test scores. Single-sex schools have a higher percentage of graduates who moved to four-year colleges and a lower percentage of graduates who moved to two-year junior colleges than coeducational schools.
In the Connecticut Report cited below, Dr. Marianne Kirner presents a compendium of research from the U.S. and around the world which support the benefits of same-sex education.
- Mulholland, Hansen, and Kaminski (2004) compared achievement gains of boys and girls in Australian single-sex classes versus coeducational classes. They found higher gains in English grades for both girls and boys attending the single-sex classes than their co-ed counterparts; however, no data collected on the two groups yielded statistically significant differences between them.
- Among other changes, Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis created separate freshmen academies for girls and boys. Th e graduation rate subsequently soared from 55% in 2007 to 81.6% in 2010. Th e school won the 2011 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge (Hutchison & Mikulski, 2012).
- Harjes (2010) measured how attitudes about gender and race were diff erent in children from single-sex classrooms versus traditional classrooms. The students in single-sex environments reported more adaptive psychosocial outcomes, including lower reporting of any life difficulty and the impact of life’s difficulties on learning. Students in single-sex classes reported more adaptive attitudes about race than students overall. They scored higher in measurements of ethnic identity and belonging, and of liking individuals with an ethnic background other than their own.
- A three-year study found a wide span in performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, depending on whether the students were in single-sex classrooms. Girls in traditional classes achieved proficiency on the test 59 percent of the time, while girls in single-sex classrooms achieved proficiency at a rate of 75 percent. The boys had a far more significant difference: just 37 percent from traditional classes were proficient, compared to 86 percent from all-boys classrooms. Similarly, 37% of boys in coeducational classes scored proficient, compared with 86% of boys in the all-boys classes (Hutchison & Mikulski, 2012).
Sexual DimorphismThere is undeniable evidence of differences between males and females in the development of the human brain. In addition, many of the differences are noted in areas of the brain with sexual hormone receptors. For example, females tend to have higher concentrations in the regions of the brain responsible for language cognition and some studies suggest these differences may account for learning differences between the sexes at various stages of maturity.
According to a 2007 longitudinal pediatric neuroimaging study led by a team of neuroscientists from the National Institute of Mental Health, various brain regions develop in a different sequence and tempo in girls compared with boys (NeuroImage, Vol. 36, No. 4). Using 829 brain scans gathered over two years from 387 subjects from 3 to 27 years old, researchers found several remarkable differences. The occipital lobe, for example — the one most associated with visual processing — shows rapid development in girls 6 to 10 years old, while boys show the largest growth in this region after 14 years old. Other studies have also shown disparities in language processing between the sexes, concluding that the language areas of the brain in many 5-year-old boys look similar to that of many 3-year-old girls (Developmental Neuropsychology, Vol. 16, No. 3). “Timing is everything, in education as in many other fields,” says Sax, author of several books on the science of sex differences, including “Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls” (Basic Books, 2010). “It’s not enough to teach well; you have to teach well to kids who are developmentally ripe for learning.” For example, asking 5-year-old boys to sit still, be quiet and pay attention is often not developmentally appropriate for them, but there are other ways to teach boys to read that don’t require boys to sit still and be quiet, he says.
While the evidence is clear, the interpretation of the evidence is controversial. Predictably, advocates of coeducation will claim the evidence is inconclusive about whether observable physical differences between the brains of males and females prove there are differences in the ability of either to learn. Measurable differences in cognitive ability (for example, females tend be more language capable and males tend to be spatially capable) are well known.
As a whole, girls outperform boys in the use of language and fine motor skills until puberty, notes Denckla. Boys also fall prey to learning disabilities more frequently than girls. "Clinics see a preponderance of boys with dyslexia," Denckla tells WebMD. ADHD also strikes more boys than girls. The symptoms displayed by girls and boys with ADHD differ, too. Girls with ADHD usually exhibit inattention, while affected boys are prone to lack of impulse control. But not all differences favor girls. Boys generally demonstrate superiority over female peers in areas of the brain involved in math and geometry. These areas of the brain mature about four years earlier in boys than in girls, according to a recent study that measured brain development in more than 500 children. Researchers concluded that when it comes to math, the brain of a 12-year-old girl resembles that of an 8-year-old boy. Conversely, the same researchers found that areas of the brain involved in language and fine motor skills (such as handwriting) mature about six years earlier in girls than in boys.
While it may be claimed that in the long-run the differences in brain development have minimal cumulative effect on the ability of males and females to learn the same things, the way they learn are driven by developmental differences. In addition, the brain continues to develop throughout life and as stated in the Novotney card above, "timing is everything". It seems intuitive that if educators can design curricula which leverage the differences between the sexes at the appropriate ages in which certain kinds of skills emerge, then the Pro side of the debate has validity.
Quality of EducationThis is such an unfortunate term, in my opinion. The quality of education, it seems can be effected by so many things external to students learning ability. For example, schools which have more money can provide a better quality of education than schools which are on the verge of bankruptcy and which have few educational resources and tools. For the purposes of this debate, we must focus on those elements indicative of quality education as measured by the response and performance of students in accordance with the tools and resources available. This means, if a poor school system measures student progress in a coeducational environment and the same poor school system measures student progress in a gender specific environment and notes improvement, then we must affirm. We could measure the "improvement" in order to Affirm the resolution and the most common way to measure that performance is use the kinds of measures the federal government uses to evaluate proficiency. But...
Educational research is tricky business. Methodologies that are used to measure student learning each have their own limitations and biases, and no method can be counted on to be completely error free. That is why best practice in educational research dictates triangulating the data. If several different sources of data are used, it increases the probability that the findings present an accurate picture. In other words, the strongest assessment programs will rely on a mix of direct and indirect measures. Indirect measures include data from surveys of seniors and alumni, retention rates, graduation rates, number of students progressing to advanced degrees, etc. They allow administrators, faculty, researchers, and consumers to infer the benefits to students from their years in college, but they cannot report with precision exactly what students have learned or what they are capable of doing as a result of their university education. Historically, these kinds of data have been collected by offices of institutional research, alumni offices, etc. Direct measures provide more evidence of the increase in students’ knowledge and abilities over a period of time. Standardized tests as, for example, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) are one kind of direct measure. While the CLA assesses general education skills, other standardized tests can measure specific disciplinary knowledge. The Force Concept Inventory, for instance, is used to determine students’ understanding of concepts in mechanics. Other examples of direct measures include assignments that ask students to perform some kind of conceptual task (e.g., create a concept map) or portfolios compiled over a course of study. It is important to emphasize that these student work products need to be systematically reviewed for evidence of learning in order for them to be of most use. For example, rubrics can be developed and used by groups of faculty or educational researchers to analyze papers, thesis, or portfolios in order to assess learning. Grades, of course, can also be a measure of learning although how the grades are determined and reported can sometimes undermine their usefulness.
Pro will find it very difficult to refer to good studies showing direct correlation between student outcomes and same-sex education. I included the Park, et al study because in my opinion it represents one of the best and studies of its kind which measured outcomes by looking at college enrollments among other things. Obviously, Con will have counter-evidence for most evidence which claims improvement in standardized tests. In 1999, Diane Pollard looked at many of the extant studies and isolated several important indicators which can point to an overall improvement in the "quality" of education.
In spite of the shortcomings of the existing research on single-sex classes, some common threads seem to permeate current studies that suggest some possible positive effects of these classes for girls. Three of these threads are described here.First, one finding across studies suggests that single-sex classes are useful for girls because they establish comfortable places in which girls can learn and explore the world. This benefit is evident from the self-reports in the literature about single-sex classes in math and science, and the same finding emerges from our study of the after-school programs.Second, single-sex classes provide an opportunity for girls to consider issues of gender identity and the variety of roles girls and women can consider in today’s and tomorrow’s society. Evidence from both the literature and our research in the African-centered schools suggest that girls in single-sex classrooms can be more easily encouraged to explore a range of roles and options.Third, single-sex classes may be particularly helpful to girls at the developmental level of early adolescence. This suggestion must be interpreted with caution, however, since it could be an artifact of the large number of studies conducted with middle school students. Fewer studies appear to have involved secondary or elementary school students. However, consideration of the developmental changes associated with early adolescence suggests that this is a time when girls become particularly concerned about their sexual identity as they deal with the changes of puberty. Since girls tend to mature earlier than boys, single-sex classes at the sixth- or seventh-grade level offer a particularly salient advantage for girls. At the seventh- and eighth-grade levels, such classes may help both boys and girls cope with the developmental changes of early adolescence. Finally, there may be an indirect positive effect for girls that could emanate from some single-sex classes for boys. In particular, one relatively important component of the classes for boys in the African-centered school Cheryl Ajirotutu and I studied has been an explicit consideration of issues of gender bias and the roles that boys and men play in contributing to the social and psychological oppression of women and girls. We do not know yet how widespread these types of considerations are in other classes for African American boys.
Thus, I expect the quality of education will be measured in more abstract terms and other ways than standardized tests but the terms which define improved quality should resonate with judges.
Causal Effects of Single-Sex Schools on College Entrance Exams and College Attendance: RandomAssignment in Seoul High Schools; University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons
Single-Sex Education: The Connecticut Context; State Education Resource Center
Marianne Kirner, Ph.D; 2013
Coed versus single-sex ed
Does separating boys and girls improve their education? Experts on both sides of the issue weigh in.
American Psychological Association
February 2011, Vol 42, No. 2
How Male and Female Brains Differ
Researchers reveal sex differences in the brain's form and function.
Methods of Measuring Learning Outcomes and Value Added
Developed in 2007 by Lori Breslow, Director, Teaching and Learning Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (firstname.lastname@example.org), with input from
Anne Faye (Carnegie Mellon University), Lydia Snover (MIT), and Barbara Masi (MIT)
By Diane S. Pollard
School of Education, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee