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Single-Sex Schools: Back to the Future?

By Elaine Cassel

After 30 years of federal policy that discouraged it, in May 2002 the Bush administration announced that it would encourage single-sex education in public schools. Most research touting the benefits of same-sex education talks about its value to girls. Does anyone care about the boys?

Federal law prohibits discrimination in education based on gender, at least one factor that accounts for there being only 11 public school in the United States with single-sex education (although many private schools have it). But for ten years, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) has sponsored research that they said provided evidence that same sex education would be good for girls. No such research has been conducted on the impact on boys of going to all boys schools. In 1998, the AAUW backed off its claims and said that though there was evidence that single-sex education produced good results for some girls in some situations, there was no evidence in general that it is better for girls than coeducation.

No one seems to now where the Bush administration’s initiative came from and why it surfaced at this time. But there is a substantial body of psychological research that suggests that teachers themselves have a large influence on the difference between boys’ and girls’ performances. Would creating same sex schools change the way that teachers feel about and relate to boys and girls?

Research indicates that teachers, like other adults, express stereotypical, gender-based views about the capacities of male and female students. They tend to stereotype boys and girls as expressing traditional male/female traits. Boys receive more disapproval from teachers than girls do, during elementary school years, even when the boys and girls engage in similar amounts of disruptive behavior. Teachers think that boys are more likely to cause trouble than girls in classrooms, but they call on boys more than girls. Teachers tend to put children in gender-based groups for doing class projects, for instance setting up separate bulletin boards for girls' and boys' artwork and referring to students collectively as "boys" and "girls" (Bukatko & Daehler, 2001).

News reports about the new initiative have focused on negative influences that boys have in the classrooms (being more disruptive and "distracting" girls, for instance), with no such reports on any role that girls may play in disrupting boys’ learning. An article in the Tuesday May 14, 2002 Washington Post had several quotes from girls attending private schools, but not one quote from a boy attending a boys school. Girls were quoted as saying that they were "intimidated" by boys and that not having boys around took of thee "pressure" to dress nicely and look "good." Is it possible that teachers’ bias in favor of girls (and their "good" behavior) filter down to the girl students and create resentment toward boys?

It is noteworthy that psychological research aimed toward promoting gender equity in the classroom has focused on how teachers can make the classrooms even more "girl-friendly." For instance, it has been suggested that teachers should use media that promote girls’ participation in nontraditional roles and call on girls to answer questions instead of calling on boys who volunteer to answer (Bukatko & Daehler, 2001).

The Bush administration has insisted that its overall education initiative will be based on "scientifically based research," yet no research has been offered to support allowing public funds to be used for same-sex education. To date, the research about gender issues in education has been designed to promote its benefit to girls.

Federal law indeed prohibits discrimination in education. In order for same-sex education to comply with law, it is going to have to be as "good" for boys as it is for girls (and first, we are going to have to define what "good" is, for boys and girls). In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court ruled that "separate" schools did not provide equal education to blacks and white students. Black students got the short shrift. If we are not careful, the same may someday be said for boys.



Bukatko, D., & Daehler, M.W. (2001). Child Development: A Thematic Approach. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Miflin Co.

Strauss, V. (2002, May 14). Spotlight on Single-Sex Schooling. The Washington Post, p. A9.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College

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