The reform-weary Austin Independent School District (AISD) made headlines when it announced its latest school-change strategy—opening two single-sex middle schools—despite lack of community support, and despite numerous well-controlled studies that suggest single-sex education offers no achievement or motivational benefits for students. (Some research suggests that single-sex education may even reinforce gender stereotyping. Not enough research has been done to determine whether, as some claim, single-sex schooling could be particularly effective for low-income African American and Hispanic boys.)
Despite a lack of clear benefits associated with separating students by gender, the practice is becoming increasingly popular. More than 500 American public schools in the 2011-2012 academic year offered their students single-sex opportunities, ranging from separate classes for physical education to entire school days with all activities being either all-boy or all-girl.
Opinions vary widely on this issue, judging from the variety of comments made by readers online.
Responding to an Austin Chronicle article about the AISD’s plans for single-sex schools, Nomis 10 advocated taking a chance on the strategy, even though the evidence might not be perfectly clear: “…Middle school…is a difficult time for any teenager, even in the best of environments. By separating girls and boys during only these three years, students can go through their hormonal changes with just a little more peace of mind while focusing on their education. Is this model best for everyone? Probably not, but the current model isn't working.”
Yet Richard Whittaker, writer of the Austin Chronicle article, noted that “Putting resources and programs into a campus should be driven by best practice—otherwise, it’s like trying to assemble a jigsaw by throwing the pieces at a wall.”
Educator Yvonne Ortiz-Prince took a different perspective: “The data on the impact of single-gender schools is inconclusive for African American and Latino boys; however, there is plenty of data to support the instructional and programmatic strategies and methodologies often a part of such schools. These approaches are more often closely aligned with students’ holistic development and the cultures of the surrounding community as well as foster greater rapport between teachers and students.
I wonder if part of the opposition to this idea is that we would have to accept that students have different needs and some needs may differ based on culture, race, ethnicity, class and learning style. These are topics we tend to be uncomfortable discussing. Instead, we often default to saying we treat everyone the same regardless of whether it fits or works. We often use treating students ‘the same’ as an example of ‘equitable’ practice. It is not.”
In response to an Atlantic article about the issue of single-sex education, reader anewleaf said, “I think [single-sex education] legitimately does a disservice to students who must then operate in a co-ed world. I don't think our society benefits by deepening the divide of understanding between men’s and women’s experiences. That said, I can see some benefit in going to a single-sex summer camp or joining a single-sex church group to get a perspective. I just don’t think it should be the majority of one’s experience as a student, because it won’t be as an adult.”
Another Atlantic article reader, Badphairy, acknowledged that just as single-sex education should not be viewed as a panacea, co-education should not be viewed as the perfect fit for all students. This reader encouraged students and families to choose what works best for them, and also recommended working to eliminate gender bias and stereotyping in all education settings. “I see no reason to put this as an either/or binary decision. We should indeed alter the culture to be less injurious to the young, and also continue to allow those who want single-sex education to have it.”