After decades out of favor, single-sex schools are growing in popularity, particularly in some urban districts serving students from low-income families. Research on the effectiveness of such schools has been mixed. Advocates say single-sex environments allow teachers to adjust to boys’ or girls’ learning styles, while sheltering students from the distractions of dealing with the other gender. Opponents say teaching the genders differently can promote unhealthy stereotypes, and that separate facilities are inherently unequal.
A 1995 study published in Comparative Education Review raises different questions about why single-sex classrooms may or may not be effective. Placing the issue in an international context, authors David P. Baker, Cornelius Riordan, and Maryellen Schaub argue that results from single-sex schools vary from one place to another in ways that suggest there’s no universal rule about what advantages they provide. In fact, many of the benefits touted by advocates may have more to do with other differences in approach that tend to accompany same-sex classrooms in specific countries.
The authors looked at two countries where single-sex schools are relatively rare—Thailand and Japan—and two others where they’re common—Belgium and New Zealand. For the second two countries, they found that students’ achievement in mathematics had almost nothing to do with whether they were in a co-ed or single-sex environment.
In the two nations where co-ed classes are the rule, single-sex schools had significant effects for the achievement of both boys and girls, but not all in the same direction. In Thailand, girls did better in single-sex than co-ed environments, but boys did not. In Japan, both boys and girls achieved lower results in single-sex environments. The differences are related to the particular functions of the schools. In Thailand, a small number of schools for girls in Bangkok offer elite education for girls, while mixed-gender schools provide more opportunities for boys. In Japan, gender-segregated schools tend to be private, and offer a route to private universities without the strenuous entrance exams of public universities.
“Wealthier families place their less motivated or less able children in universities through private single-sex secondary schools,” the authors write. “The negative effects of single-sex schooling in Japan in part are produced by the type of student who is attracted to this sector (and the accompanying opportunity to buy future education), perhaps more so than any large differences in learning environments.”
Although this study does not look at the United States, the authors note that single-sex schools in this country, as in Japan and Thailand, are “perceived as very distinct from the average school.” In the U.S., they write, many such schools are known for “unique approaches.” And, whatever the positive or negative effects the schools have on student achievement, they may be due more to those approaches than to sex segregation.