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Single-Gender Classes: Are They Better?




Wesley Sharpe offers two points of view on this hot topic! What happens to the bright-eyed exuberance of girls between the primary grades and high school graduation? Do schools shortchange boys? Could single-gender classes or schools make a difference? Some California educators think so.

On opening day of the 1999 school year, the Jefferson Leadership Academies became the first public middle school in the country to offer separate classes for boys and girls. About 1,000 uniformed sixth, seventh, and eighth graders entered single-gender classes.

"Some people pay a lot of money to send their children to these kinds of schools. ... We thought maybe this is something that could work in a public school setting," Kristi Kahl, coordinator of the Long Beach California Unified School District's middle school reform, told the Los Angeles Times ("Same-Sex Classes to be Offered at Long Beach Middle School"; May 9, 1999). "It is really hard to say how you can attribute [improvements] to gender separation, how much you can attribute to instruction, and how much you can attribute to parent commitment. But in reality, probably all of those things come into play."

It's too early to judge the success or failure of the Jefferson Leadership Academies. "But there is evidence of change," principal Jill Rojas told Education World. According to a report recently released by the Long Beach USD Office of Research, Planning and Evaluation, the students are doing very well. The district has compared cumulative grade point averages (GPAs) to current GPAs for all students who attended Jefferson in 1998-99 and who are currently enrolled in 1999-2000. Among the findings:


  • "Student grade point averages for students who had previously attended Jefferson in either grades 6 or 7 increased for all students, male and female, in both grades 7 and 8 under the single gender academy configuration.
  • "The increase was statistically significant for both genders at grade 7 and for males at grade 8."

"We have seen many students start to focus heavily on academics," Rojas continued. "They no longer clown or try to impress the opposite sex. Girls are more apt to answer questions aloud in class as well as ask them. Girls are learning to be more academically competitive and boys are learning to collaborate."

When asked about specific problems in Jefferson's single-gender classes, Rojas responded, "Some teachers have had a hard time with their all-boy cores [classes], but I feel it is based somewhat on the fact that they feel more physically challenged by boys who misbehave than by girls."



In 1992, a widely publicized report stated that public schools shortchanged girls. The report fueled interest in single-sex classes and schools. The following year, American University professors Myra and David Sadker published Failing in Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls. The book describes striking discoveries about fairness in American schools. During a three-year study, trained observers visited more than 100 classrooms in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The responses observers noted in those elementary-school classrooms included the following:


  • Boys called out eight times as often as girls did. Teachers ignored the "raise your hand" rule. If a boy yelled out, the teacher usually praised his contribution. Girls who called out got reminders to raise their hands.
  • Teachers valued boys' comments more than girls' comments. Teachers responded to girls with a simple nod or an OK, but they praised, corrected, helped, and criticized boys.
  • Boys were encouraged to solve problems on their own, but teachers helped girls who were stuck on problems.

Teachers of all-girl classes seemed to validate the idea that girls performed better in single-sex classes. "I enjoy seeing girls participate so much in class discussions. ... And, like it or not, girls seem to talk more in class in an all-female school. I often see a whole classroom of eighth graders sharing ideas in an animated manner," said Sharon Johnson-Cramer. She teaches history to seventh and eighth graders at the all-girls Winsor School in Boston and wrote What a Single-Sex School Is Really Like, published in The Christian Science Monitor (electronic edition).

"Compare this with a scene I used to face daily: a coed class of 10th graders, in which many of the boys talked but it took the teacher's calling on the girls to get them to participate. Even when I taught such units as Women and Islam or Female Infanticide in India at the coed school, it was still the boys who talked the most in class," Johnson-Cramer said.

Anecdotal evidence seems to support the benefits of single-sex high school classes. But Anita P. Davis, Ed.D., director of teacher education at Converse College, a private liberal arts college for women, told Education World that research doesn't support that view. "With teachers who treat them fairly, female high school students can perform academically as well as male students in the same class," Davis said.



In 1998, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) published Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls. Single-sex education is not necessarily better than coeducation, that report noted. The publication "challenges the popular idea that K-12 single sex education is better for girls than coeducation."

According to the report, boys and girls thrive on a good education, regardless of whether the school is single-sex or coeducational.


  • "There is no evidence in general that single-sex education works or is better for girls than coeducation.
  • "When elements of a good education are present, girls and boys succeed. Elements include small classes and schools, equitable teaching practices, and focused academic curriculum.
  • "Some kinds of single-sex programs produce positive results for some students, including a preference for math and science among girls. [Although] girls' achievement has improved in some single-sex schools, there is no significant improvement in girls' achievement in single-sex classes."



In fact, recent research seems to show that the gender gap between boys and girls has closed. "All of this suggests that the broad nationwide efforts to raise female achievement in schools have been effective," said Cornelius Riordan, a professor of sociology at Providence College, in The Silent Gender Gap, a November 17, 1999, Education Week story.

"As a result of these trends, boys rather than girls are now on the short end of the gender gap in many secondary school outcomes. Currently, boys are less likely than girls to be in an academic (college-preparatory) curriculum. They have lower educational and occupational expectations, have lower reading and writing test scores, and expect to complete their schooling at an earlier age," Riordan explained.

William S. Pollack, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, offered a similar opinion in "The Hidden Suffering of Boys in the Classroom," (San Jose Mercury, August 8, 1998). Noting that schools are "failing boys in at least four ways," Pollack wrote that


  • Boys' reading and writing problems often go unnoticed. "One study found a correlation between boys' low reading skills and their association of reading with feminine skills," said Pollack.
  • People often handle boys emotional and social needs inappropriately or inadequately. "When we observe boys' emotional worlds more closely, we discover much quiet suffering under their outward bravado."
  • Educators tend to interpret "boy behavior" as a discipline problem without probing to discover emotional needs. "Boys generally prefer to learn by doing, by engaging in some action-oriented task. In learning environments biased against their strengths, boys may become frustrated and attempt to get their needs met by seeking negative attention."
  • Teaching methods fail to take into account boys' unique learning styles. "Many classes simply aren't conducted in a way boys, with their naturally high energy levels, find captivating. When boys aren't engaged, they become discipline problems," Pollack concluded.



To help determine the future of single-gender classes, additional research on the effectiveness of those classrooms appears necessary, Anita Davis told Education World.

"Educators must expand the research base using existing single-sex classes and schools. And create additional classes . . . that improve the public school system. Researchers must promptly share significant findings on single-gender education with the education profession and with the general public." Davis explained.

Single-gender academies similar to the Jefferson Leadership Academies may be the answer. The California Department of Education summarized research on single-gender educational programs in a Fact Sheet: Single Gender Academies Pilot Program. The report indicates that single-gender education


  • Seems to reduce the number of dropouts.
  • Improves the general academic performance of urban males and the math and science achievement of females.
  • Creates a setting that appears to reduce the distracting behavior boys and girls fashion for one another.
  • Motivates students and parents. "The effectiveness of single-gender programs may be due more to students' and parents' motivation, commitment, and small class size than to the fact that they enroll only boys or girls."

What can educators and parents do about the gender gap between boys and girls? "There is plenty we can do. By designing an inviting educational experience for boys, by 'guy-ifying' certain aspects of schools, and by ensuring that schools help boys thrive as individuals, we can help boys boost not only their academic performance and self-esteem but also their dreams for the future," said Pollack.



The Yin and Yang of Learning: Educators Seek Solutions in Single-Sex Education This Education World story discusses California's approach to single-gender classrooms. In California, "A district cannot establish an academy for one gender without establishing a second, equal academy for the other."

Article by Wesley Sharpe, Ed.D.
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