Single-sex education in primary and secondary schools could be detrimental to students and may actually increase gender stereotyping, according to a Sept. 23 report in Science authored by Claremont McKenna College (CMC) Psychology Professor Diane Halpern and seven other researchers.
The paper, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” is largely critical of what the researchers call “sex-segregated education.” Halpern was the paper’s lead author.
“What we found is that students who do well in single-sex environments are students who would tend to do well in coeducational environments,” Halpern said of the report. “They are motivated, they have parents who are involved, and they have many other qualities that are associated with success.”
Since it was published last week the report has received lots of press. It has been a subject of debate on many online education and psychology research sites. The story was covered by The New York Times on Sept. 22 and is currently being reviewed at the U.S. Department of Education.
Drawing from previously published research on K-12 public schools, the researchers claims that by segregating students according to sex, educators are teaching students to think according to gender stereotypes.
“[G]ender divisions are made even more salient in [single-sex] settings because the contrast between the segregated classroom and the mixed-sex structure of the surrounding world provides evidence to children that sex is a core human characteristic along which adults organize education,” the report reads.
The researchers argue that placing an emphasis on the importance of gender distinction in education is comparable to placing an emphasis on race. They cite studies which show that although schools segregated by race may have lower instances of racial discrimination, “…the preponderance of social science data indicates that racially segregated schools promote racial prejudice and inequality,” according to the report. Similarly, the researchers say, gender-segregated schools promote gender prejudices that do not work to the social or academic advantage of students.
Halpern also criticized studies that have found that students in single-sex schooling (SSS) perform higher on academic tests, claiming that they are flawed because those students were already high performers when they arrived at those institutions. In the Science article, Halpern and her colleagues use a male-only high school as an example of the flawed research methods, or “pseudoscience,” that others have used to support SSS. College acceptance rates for graduates of the male-only high school are higher than the national average, but, according Halpern, when the ratios of freshman-enrollment to college acceptances are compared, students at the single-sex school don’t perform better than those at co-ed schools.
While the report focuses on primary and secondary schools, some students at the 5Cs and Scripps College in particular expressed surprise at the paper’s conclusions. Andrea Kozak SC ’12, a Gender Studies major, acknowledged that single-sex institutions aren’t perfect, but defended the purpose of their existence.
“In a perfect world there wouldn’t be women’s only colleges,” she said. “However, women are still oppressed in the world we live in. For now I think women’s colleges do serve a purpose.”
Halpern insisted that Scripps does not fall into the group of students her report singles out. “Scripps classes are mostly coeducational,” she said.
“I’m sure there are a lot of good single-sex colleges out there,” she continued. “But I think they’re good not for the reason of being single sex. They’re good because of things like good faculty and dedicated students.” Halpern added that her report emphasizes evidence-based policy, and since the evidence she and her colleagues examined did not cover schools like Scripps, she could not make any inferences about what the research might say about Scripps students.
“I don’t have the data [covering Scripps],” she said. “I think Scripps students are extremely intelligent, wonderful people in general.”
Still, Halpern maintained that Scripps’s single-sex designation raises questions. “[Scripps] does make sex salient, and it’s really a very unusual place in that regard,” she said.
Antoinette Myers SC ’12, President of Scripps Associated Students (SAS), pointed out that some of the advantages of single-sex education may be more intangible than test scores. She said that trans-gender students, as an example, may feel more comfortable at colleges like Scripps because those schools provide them with a more accepting environment. She also pointed to studies showing that graduates of female-only colleges tend to be more successful than their co-educational counterparts. According to Myers, approximately 20 percent of women in the U.S. Congress are graduates of single-sex higher-education institutes.
The report takes aim at a 2006 Department of Education decision to loosen some Title IX regulations that restricted gender discrimination in public schools. These looser regulations, along with advocacy work from some groups in favor of SSS, has led to a rise in SSS in America, Halpern said. The paper argues that schools are wasting funding in a time of budgetary shortfalls by training their teachers to teach in sex-specific ways.
“Private schools can do what they want,” Halpern said. “They can have single-religion classes and single-race classes. The literature we studied applies to both, but we are really concerned with public schools in response to a change in regulations regarding Title IX.”
The report also targets the founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), Leonard Sax.
“Generally [Sax and his supporters] think that boys and girls are so different that they can’t learn together,” Halpern sad. “Sax has said that you can’t educate boys and girls together because girls need a room that is six degrees warmer than boys’ rooms. That’s what we call pseudoscience.”
“Our desire is for the revisions to Title IX to be rescinded,” she added. “That is our goal.”