Single Sex Education

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Updated: Jan 12, 2020
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The question of segregating schools on the basis of sex is not a new issue for feminists or the American public. As early as the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft and later other First-Wave feminists advocated for coeducation in order to increase access education. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists advocated for coeducation to eliminate bias as a means of creating equal opportunity.

However, the American Association of University Women’s 1992 release of “”How Schools Shortchange Girls”” gave rise to a feminist initiative for single-sex schooling of girls throughout the 1990s (Chapple II.A). Most notably, in 2001 Hillary Clinton and three other female U.S. senators spearheaded a bipartisan movement to loosen Title IX restrictions for single-sex programs in public schools (Gross-Loh). Subsequently, the girls’ movement brought the wave of a “”Boy Crisis”” in education. Many writers “”blamed misguided feminism’ for neglecting boys and…argued that boys were suffering…because teachers failed to take into account inherent differences in learning between the sexes”” (Chapple II.A).

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Regardless of which side was supposedly at a disadvantage, single-sex education seemed to offer a solution. Much research has been conducted on the relationship between single-sex education and “”achievement boosts”” within the United States and internationally, but there has been less emphasis on the role single-sex education plays in socializing students into “”traditional”” gender stereotypes. This paper will explore the question: how does single-sex education impact the gender socialization of stereotypes in adolescents and what are the implications of this socialization?

It is important to note that for the purposes of this paper, the sources used made the assumptions that students were assigned one of the binary sexes to determine which school to attend, that those biologically assigned as “”male”” and “”female”” automatically identify as cisgender, and that they were expected to follow “”traditional roles”” for their gender; ultimately this means the findings are inherently limited and do not give voice to students who may be intersex or do not identify with the gender typically associated with their assigned sex.

Between 2002 to 2009, single-sex public schools grew from twelve to 518 (Chapple II.A). With the rise of single-sex education, some fear that school segregation based on sex can lead to the same systematic bias and discrimination that was present in schools segregated by race. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees protection against sex discrimination, which prompts the question of whether or not sex segregation in schools is unconstitutional.

This is still an open-ended legal issue, but the case of the U. S. Supreme Court vs Virginia, where a woman was denied admission to the state-funded Virginia Military Institute based solely on her sex, sets the precedent that sex-discrimination analysis must be based on the question of whether or not the classification of sex serves to reinforce gender stereotypes (Chapple I.A.2). This legal requirement for evidence of “”reinforced gender stereotypes”” to prove sex discrimination has provided much research and useful material and insights on the impact of single-sex education on gender socialization.

It is important to understand the basis of the teaching methodology used in single-sex public schools in order to see its relationship to gender socialization. Biological differences between sexes has been used as a validation for separating sexes for centuries, but most recently this justification for separation is based off of the neuroscience research of Sax and Gurian. Their research asserts that there are innate, biological differences in the male and female brain, which cause boys and girls to “”learn differently”” and each sex should therefore be taught in a way that is tailored to their distinct learning styles (Eliot 363).

The research includes findings such as physiological differences in the way boys and girls hear sounds, meaning boys’ teachers should “”speak loudly and in short direct sentences”” and girls’ teachers should “”speak much more softly…with more terms of endearment and fewer direct commands”” (Eliot 370). For example, it suggests boys’ teachers “”best practices””: “”Put down your papers. Open your books. Let’s get to work! Mr. Jefferson, that includes you”” (Eliot 370). For girls they suggest: “”Lisa, sweetie, it’s time to open your book.

Emily, darling, would you please sit down for me and join us for this exercise?”” (Eliot 370). Further their work finds that “”boys are more comfortable with math for its own sake’ whereas girls are unable to get excited about pure’ math. In addition, the work finds that since boys’ brains receive testosterone daily they can perform better in math while girls have peak math performance only a few times a month when estrogen levels are high (Chapple II.B.1). It also says boys are able to think more abstractly which “”makes them naturally better at philosophy, architecture and engineering”” (Chapple II.B.1).

This research has been highly scrutinized by the scientific community, yet it still serves as the basis for current single-sex public school curriculum. According to Eliot, over 500 public schools now have single-sex education, “”based in large measure on claims about brain differences…that are debatable, at best, and most often, plain wrong”” (Eliot 364). In essence, this means that almost all single-sex public schools base their curriculum on the notion that boys and girls do not have the same cognitive capabilities.

When single sex curriculum is based off of these “”biological differences””, it leads to polarizing gender socialization. In an investigation by the Department of Education, it found numerous counts of single sex schools whose programs made “”overly broad generalizations”” about the students’ preferences and abilities (Chapple II.B.1). For example, one district trained teachers to motivate boys by encouraging “”hierarchy, competition, being a winner and being on top””, and motivating girls by encouraging them to “”case, be accepted, liked, and loved”” (Chapple II.B.1).

Further, one school “”defined spaces”” of male-hood and female-hood by “”exhibiting characteristics of warrior, protector, and provider’ for boys and allowing girls space/time to explore things that young women like [including] writing, applying and doing make-up and hair'”” (Chapple II.B.1). Another school asked sixth grade boys to brainstorm “”action words used in sports”” while girls “”were asked to design their dream wedding cake”” (Chapple II.B.1).

Additionally, one school had the boys read one book because it involved “”hunting and dogs”” while the girls read a romance novel because “”girls like love stories”” (Chapple II.B.1). In all of these examples, the central issue remains that though many boys might like sports and hunting and many girls might like weddings, hair and makeup, and relationships, the schools have ignored the fact that not all boys and girls have the same interests and preferences. These sweeping generalizations about students’ preferences that resulted from the research done by Sax and Gurian lead to students to even more polar gender stereotypes than within a coeducational school.

The implications of the gender socialization seen in these single-sex public schools can be detrimental, as it promotes stereotypes and traditional gender roles that seem to be backed by “”science”” and leads to gender bias which ultimately leads to discrimination. According to Martin, “”gender bias occurs when one’s expectations and potentialities are limited because of the expectations other place on them and/or upon members of their sex in general, and/or when a person makes assumptions about another person’s behavior, preferences, or abilities based only on their gender”” (Martin 96).

This means that this gender socialization will set definitive ideals of what girls and boys are capable of and how they should behave, based on “”science””. Additionally, it should be noted that gender bias can also occur in coeducational schools. In turn, students who do not follow this gender bias “”can experience difficulty in gaining acceptance from peers and adults”” (Martin 96). Essentially, any student that does not conform to the gender roles placed on them by their school is at a disadvantage both socially with peers, and academically with teachers.

This attitude further ingrains in both students’ and educators’ minds that women are cognitively inferior to men, men are naturally more aggressive, and women are more fragile and submissive. This is the exact result that opponents of single sex education fear, as it perpetuates the notion at women are inferior to men, continuing the cycle of sex discrimination and ultimately in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

However, when single sex-schools operate independently of Sax and Gurian, or any other “”biological”” findings, they seem to have an opposite impact on gender socialization as compared to the above same-sex schools. In single-sex schools where the curriculum and methodology is designed without accommodations for each of the sexes, the students are forced to perform roles and participate in activities that are outside of their assigned gender stereotype. This allows students to foster traits found on all parts of the gender spectrum and shifts their notions of what the “”norm”” is for their sex.

According to Anfara and Mertens, who aggregated all of the research on single-sex education prior to 2008, they found there to be a research consensus “”that girls in single-sex schools tend to perceive math and science classes as “”less masculine”” and, therefore, have stronger preferences for them”” (Anfara and Mertens 55). Without the reinforcement of gender stereotypes, gender bias does not occur, and therefore students do not police and punish other students who act outside of societal gender roles (Johnson and Gastic 128). Further, multiple studies concluded that the environment of a coeducational school “”fosters nonacademic values and heightens social pressures that distract students from [academics]”” (Anfara and Mertens 54). Essentially, when the pressure to perform a certain expected role is removed, the students are free to occupy themselves with academics.

Implications of the type of socialization that results from the above single-sex environments seem to be positive. When students are socialized to not follow stereotypes, it “”challenge[s] students’ gendered perceptions and enhance[s] their self-confidence in nontraditional subjects”” (Anfara and Mertens 55). Academically, students display more confidence in themselves and their abilities. According to Anfara and Mertens, research shows that girls take more risks and increase academic ambition, among other positive findings; both boys and girls report higher self-esteem and tend to ask more questions in class (Anfara and Mertens 56).

In addition, single sex private schools consistently outperform public coeducational schools, but coeducation private schools’ academic performances are about equal with coeducational public schools’ academic performances (Anfara and Mertens 56). Socially, students seem to be more open to embracing of gender and fluid sexuality that is different than the societal “”norm””. For example, a study on the bullying of gender nonconforming students found that females who are gender nonconforming are significantly less likely to be bullied if they attend a single-sex school than if they attend a coeducational school (Johnson and Gastic 133).

In addition, a 2017 study of Chinese college students found that students who has previously attended a same-sex school were more likely to have experienced same-sex sexuality than students who attended coeducational (Li and Wong 1034). The same study also found there were no significant differences in single-sex students’ interactions with same-sex versus other-sex friends, showing that their schooling did not prevent them from the ability to engage with the opposite sex (Li and Wong 1025). These findings suggest that single-sex education, if executed correctly, allows students to see a “”new normal”” and step out of the “”box”” set for them by society academically, socially, and sexually.

It is also important to analyze the impact of same-sex public schools on the gender socialization of black and Latino males in urban environments. The single-sex schools discussed thus far have focused their curriculums on academic outcomes, which may have unintentional effects on gender socialization. In contrast, same-sex schools created for underperforming males in black and Latino communities purposely set out to change their students’ gender perceptions.

Chapple explains that leaders of schools in these communities specifically state that two of their main objectives for students are to “”change boys’ ideas of masculinity”” and incorporate academics into their identity (Chapple II.B.3). In these urban communities, hegemonic masculinity is defined by aggression, dominance and sexual power; with this in mind, schools hope to shift students’ ideas of what it means to be a “”man””.

Their methodology to shift this mindset includes encouraging students to perform activities they perceive as “”feminine”” and having black and Latino male role models for the students, who do not conform to the urban communities’ ideals of masculinity (Chapple II.B.3). They hope that these efforts ill not only boost academic achievements and dropout rates, but also will in time shift the trajectories and life paths of students away from the “”negativity of street culture”” (Chapple II.B.3). While there is limited finding about if these implications hold true, it is interesting to note that in these communities, shifting same-sex public schools away from, rather than towards, gender socialization is this the “”key”” to student success.

In conclusion, single-sex schools appear to reverse typical gender socialization in adolescence by shifting their perceptions away from gender stereotypes. The implications of this seems that students, especially girls, have more confidence in themselves and their academic performance, and are more open to ideas of fluidity in gender and in sexuality. However, when single-sex schools base their curriculum on the notion that girls and boys’ brains are biologically different and therefore have biologically different cognitive abilities, as seen as the basis for curriculum in many single-sex public schools, it directly leads to sweeping conclusions about boys and girls and impacts the polarity of gender socialization in adolescence in schools.

The implications of this polar socialization are detrimental, as it perpetuates stereotypes, leads to gender bias in schools, and ultimately sex discrimination which is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Coeducational schools also still fall to gender bias and force students to perform their expected gender roles, which distracts from academic focus.

It should be noted that while the majority of single-sex public schools seem to be perpetuating gender socialization, single-sex public schools in urban areas specifically aim to reverse gender socialization, although the implications of this effort still needs to be further research. Ultimately, it seems that when all expectations of gender performance are removed, and instead schools focus on teaching the same curriculum to all students regardless of sex and gender, the best results are yielded.

Single Sex Education essay

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Single Sex Education. (2020, Jan 12). Retrieved from