Single-sex education may refer to sex-segregated schools or sex-segregated classrooms within coeducational schools, but both definitions refer to the practice of teaching males and females separately. Single-sex education may imply different pedagogy, curricula, and opportunities for boys and girls, or it may simply refer to teaching girls and boys in different schools or classrooms. The debate over coeducation versus single-sex education has engaged parents, educators, and scholars interested in teaching both boys and girls in the safest and most effective manner possible, but the question has been complicated by the social and political implications of separating boys and girls.
Separate schools for boys and girls, particularly in secondary and postsecondary schools, were common through the early to middle part of the twentieth century, and separating boys and girls in classrooms within coeducational schools was a common practice until the 1960s and 1970s. Until then, boys and girls were often separated based on gender stereotypes and assumptions about physical differences between boys and girls; thus, vocational and physical education classrooms were the most common sites of single-sex education. Historically, single-sex education has served to deprive girls and women of educational opportunities. Because of changing social and vocational expectations and the 1972 passage of Title IX, which outlawed sex discrimination in schools, single-sex education was much less common in the following decades.
Around the turn of the twenty-first century, a new interest in single-sex education emerged. Some advocates for girls began to assert that coeducation itself did not ensure equity in the classroom for female students, claiming that even within coeducational schools and classrooms, boys still received more attention and advantages than girls. Thus, for some advocates, single-sex education became an option to help provide a safer and more equitable environment for girls. These advocates are supported by research suggesting that single-sex classrooms provide a more comfortable learning environment; boost self-esteem; and increase short and long-term opportunities for girls, including an expanded conception of gender roles for women.
Support for single-sex education has not been limited to advocates for women’s rights. Under the George W. Bush administration, federal regulations within the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 allowed for the creation of single-sex classes in elementary and secondary public schools. Some advocates suggest that single-sex education accommodates innate biological differences between boys and girls, while also providing a less distracting learning environment. More recently, advocates for boys’ rights have contended that single-sex education may provide a less feminized learning environment that better suits boys.
Critics of single-sex education, including feminist and civil rights groups, point to the fact that sex segregation has historically led to inequitable schooling, and some critics express concern that segregating sexes might enable a return to racially segregated schools. Another concern for critics is that single-sex education may, in fact, reinforce gender stereotypes rather than deconstruct them. If single-sex education is based on assumed differences between boys and girls, single-sex pedagogy and curricula could serve to reinforce these differences. Critics also suggest that single=sex education does not provide an environment representative of the real world, denying students the opportunity to learn with other genders. Finally, some critics are concerned that single-sex educational practices are unable to safely provide education for intersexed and transgendered people.
- Datnow, A., & Hubbard, L. (2002). Gender in policy and practice: Perspectives in single-sex and coeducational schooling. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
- Salomone, R. (2005). Same, different, equal: Rethinking singlesex schooling. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Tyack, D., & Hansot, E. (1990). Learning together: A history of coeducation in American public schools. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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