This was written by Rebecca Bigler and Lise Eliot. Bigler is a professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and Eliot is associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University. Both are co-authors of “The pseudoscience of single-sex schooling” published in the journal Science last September.
By Rebecca Bigler and Lise Eliot
Educators have spent several decades trying — and largely failing — to improve public schools. What if the solution were as easy as re-sorting students into their classrooms? Some supporters believe single-sex schooling is just such a magic bullet. But multiple lines of research show that single-sex schooling is both ineffective and detrimental to children’s development. This is why we support the American Civil Liberties Union’s new effort to investigate potentially unlawful single-sex programs in school districts across the country.
Throughout the United States, hundreds of public schools are segregating boys and girls as young as kindergarten age into single-sex classrooms based on highly distorted claims about differences in their brains and mental skills. What’s worse, such schools are ignoring important research showing that such segregation may actually be harmful to children.
Consider the new Franklin Academy for Boys in Tampa, a public middle school whose charter application states that “the typical teenage girl has a sense of hearing seven times more acute than a teenage boy,” and continues with this claim, “Stress enhances learning in males. The same stress impairs learning in females.”
Such statements are laughable to neuroscientists, but have proven highly persuasive to parents, teachers, and school boards. Yes, researchers have identified small, group-level differences between boys and girls (or more often, between male and female rats) on a variety of brain and behavioral measures. But none of these differences justify single-sex education.
The sex differences that have been identified are small and statistical — not a seven-fold effect. Scientists agree there is much more overlap than difference between boys and girls in their brains and behavior. That is, boys differ more among each other in academic and social skills than they differ from girls, and vice versa. Placing children into classrooms based on their gender and — and making assumptions about their physiology, brains, interests, and learning ability — will virtually guarantee that teachers’ expectations are biased and their gender-based practices are misguided for most of their students.
Perhaps more importantly, the idea that “boys and girls learn differently” is unsupported by scientific evidence. Decades of research have failed to identify reliable differences in the way male and female brains process, store, or retrieve information. For example, the popular idea that “boys are visual learners” and “girls are auditory learners” is simply untrue. Learning is best accomplished when the delivery method matches the subject matter. It is the quality of teachers’ training, lessons, and classroom management practices — and not gender of their students — that determines how much learning occurs in their classrooms.
Indeed, rigorous educational research has found that, contrary to popular belief, single-sex education does not produce better achievement outcomes compared to coeducation. Careful analysis in both the United States and from around the world demonstrates that any apparent advantage of single-sex schools disappears when you account for other characteristics, such as students’ prior ability and the length of the school day. Superior schools are successful for reasons that are unrelated to the gender of their student body.
While single-sex schooling does nothing unique to improve academic achievement, gender segregated classrooms are detrimental to children in several ways. First, research in developmental psychology has clearly shown that teachers’ labeling and segregating of social groups increases children’s stereotyping and prejudice. Imagine the consequences of creating separate math classes for “black students” and “white students.” Even if enrollment were purely optional, the mere existence of such classes would lead to increased racial stereotyping and prejudice. As is true for race, classroom assignment based on gender teaches children that males and females have different types of intellects, and reinforces sexism in schools and the culture at large.
Second, research on peer relations indicates that children who interact mostly with same-gender peers develop increasingly narrow skill sets and interests. For example, boys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive; girls who spend more time with other girls become more sex-typed in their play. Developmental research finds better mental health outcomes among children who develop a mix of traditionally masculine and feminine skills and interests — like playing competitive sports and discussing emotions — compared to more one-dimensional peers.
Most importantly, single-sex schooling reduces boys’ and girls’ opportunities to learn from and about each other. Boys and girls must learn to work together, and the classroom is the ideal setting for such practice because it is both purposeful and supervised.
It is not long before the youth of today will be the parents, co-workers, and leaders of tomorrow. Rather than segregating boys and girls during this important developmental time, schools should take better advantage of coeducation to model the truly egalitarian society that we hope for their future.
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