Magazine Feature

Gender Segregation: Separate But Effective?

Gender-segregated classrooms are on the rise in the U.S. — especially the Southeast — but research regarding their effectiveness remains inconclusive.
Bookmarked 9 times
Illustration by Melinda Beck

Last October, more than 450 public school teachers, principals and central administrators from across the United States — as well as from Argentina, Bermuda, Canada and Poland — came together in Atlanta, Georgia, for the fifth annual convention of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

Dozens of presentations extolled the superiority of gender-segregated classrooms and entire schools, with lecture titles such as, “Burps, Farts and Snot: Teaching Chemistry To Middle School Boys,” and “Just Don’t Say ‘SEX’ — tips on how to implement single-gender programs in conservative, rural communities.”

Attendees ranged from Chicago and Philadelphia inner-city high school teachers to elementary school principals from small towns in Idaho and Indiana. They represented a fraction of recent converts to the Single Sex Public Education (SSPE) movement, which has expanded at a remarkable pace.

In 2002, only 11 public schools in the United States had gender-segregated classrooms. As of December 2009, there were more than 550.

The movement is based on the hypothesis that hard-wired differences in the ways that male and female brains develop and function in childhood through adolescence require classrooms in which boys and girls are not only separated by gender, but also taught according to radically different methods.

For example, SSPE doctrine calls for teachers in male classrooms to be constantly moving and speaking in a loud voice, even to the point of shouting, while teachers in female classes should be still and use a calming tone. This differentiation stems from the central tenet of SSPE ideology that young males thrive on competition and confrontation, while young females require a more nurturing and cooperative learning environment.

“When most young boys are exposed to threat and confrontation, their senses sharpen, and they feel a thrill,” explains Dr. Leonard Sax, the founder and executive director of the National Associate for Single Sex Public Education. “When most young girls are exposed to such stimuli, however, they feel dizzy and yucky.”

In a landmark essay published in the Spring 2006 edition of Educational Horizons, just as the SSPE movement was gaining strong momentum, Dr. Sax detailed the different ways elementary school teachers should address their students in gender-segregated classes. “[The teacher] may move right in front of a boy and say, ‘What’s your answer, Mr. Jackson? Give it to me!’ Far from being intimidated, boys are energized by this teaching style. With girls [teachers should] speak more softly, use first names, terms of endearment and fewer direct commands: ‘Lisa, sweetie, it’s time to open your book. Emily, darling, would you please sit down for me and join us in this exercise?’”

The title of Dr. Sax’s essay was “Six Degrees of Separation,” a reference to the SSPE guideline that while the perfect ambient temperature for a male classroom is 69 degrees Fahrenheit, females learn most effectively at 75 degrees.


Heroic Behavior vs. Wedding Cakes

Separating boys and girls is a longstanding tradition at private and parochial schools. The concept began to gain traction in American public schools earlier this decade as schools began to experiment with SSPE in oft-desperate attempts to reduce disciplinary problems and improve test scores. The Department of Education accelerated the trend in 2006 by altering the Title IX provision of the No Child Left Behind Act to ease restrictions on gender-segregated education in public schools.

Since then, advocates like Dr. Sax, a child psychologist who never set foot in a classroom as a teacher, have stepped up their promotion of SSPE as a panacea for public education. With scant evidence backing them up, they herald SSPE as the most effective way to narrow the achievement gaps between rich and poor students and black and white students that persist eight years after the passage of No Child Left Behind.

Although SSPE programs are now in place at schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia, they are particularly popular in urban districts with large minority populations, and most concentrated in the Southeastern U.S. South Carolina has 173 SSPE schools, by far the most of any state.

Last year, the largest school system in Alabama, the Mobile County Public School System, with 66,000 students, implemented SSPE programs in eight of its 93 schools with no parental notification. The most extreme program was at Hankins Middle School in Theodore, Alabama, where boys and girls ate lunch at different times and were prohibited from speaking to one another on school grounds.

Hankins teachers were directed to create “competitive, high-energy” classrooms for boys and “cooperative, quiet” classrooms for girls. Boys were to be taught “heroic behavior.” Girls were to learn “good character.” Sixth-grade language arts exercises called for boys to brainstorm action words used in sports. Girls were instructed to describe their dream wedding cake. Electives were gender-specific. Boys took computer applications. Girls took drama. No exceptions.

Mark Jones, whose son Jacob attends Hankins, said that when he complained to the principal about the changes, she told him they were necessary because “boys’ and girls’ brains were so different they needed different curriculum.”

Teachers were directed to create 'competitive, high-energy' classrooms for boys and 'cooperative, quiet' classrooms for girls.

“Segregating boys and girls didn’t make things any better for our children. In fact they made things worse,” Jones said. “Our kids were basically being taught ideas about gender that come from the Dark Ages.”

Another parent, Terry Stevens, also objected. “The real world is integrated, and it’s important to both me and my son that he learn in a coed environment,” Stevens said.

Other parents and students disagreed. “You learn more like this,” 11-year-old Brenda Orduna told the Mobile Press-Register after making the honor roll at the end of the first quarter for the first time in her academic career. “When boys are around, you’re shy. And you won’t ask questions if you don’t get it.”


Muddled Results

The Mobile County SSPE experiment was short-lived. The district terminated all eight of its SSPE programs last March after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to file a lawsuit on behalf of Jones and Stevens. The ACLU took the position that the Hankins program violated even the slackened Title IX provision. (The other seven Mobile County SSPE programs either offered all elective courses to both genders, in single-sex classrooms, or made their SSPE programs optional, with co-ed alternatives. At Hankins, they were mandatory.)

“While schools might think that sex-segregated classes will be a quick fix for failing schools, in reality they are inherently unequal and shortchange both boys and girls,” said Emily Martin, Deputy Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Program. “There is no reliable evidence that segregating students by sex improves learning by either sex.“

It is fair to say the supposed benefits of gender-segregated education in public schools claimed by SSPE supporters are unproven. On the other hand, there is no solid evidence that SSPE is harmful to the learning process of either gender, as critics argue. SSPE is such a relatively new phenomenon that no major credible studies have been conducted of its long-term efficacy. Likewise, research into gender-segregated education in general, let alone the controversial teaching methods promoted by the SSPE movement, has been inconclusive.

A 2006 study completed at the College of Education at Arizona State University showed that most of the research into gender-segregated education thus far has been of questionable value. According to the ASU study, the “research … is mostly flawed by failure to control for important variables such as class, financial status, selective admissions, religious values, prior learning or ethnicity.” The ASU study also found that the methodology of less than 2 percent of the more than 2,000 quantitative studies of gender-segregated education was of high enough quality to meet the standards of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Our kids were basically being taught ideas about gender that come from the Dark Ages.

In 2005 the Department of Education released a comprehensive meta-analysis of gender-segregated education scholarship, titled “Single Sex Versus Coeducational Schooling: A Systematic Review.” The DOE found the results “equivocal.”

“There is some support for the premise that single-sex schooling can be helpful especially for certain outcomes related to academic achievement and more positive academic aspirations,” the DOE reported. “For many outcomes, there is no evidence of either benefit or harm. There is limited support for the view that single-sex schooling may be harmful.”

The DOE report included the caveat that most research into gender-segregated education has been conducted in private Catholic schools, which hardly makes for an apples-to-apples comparison to public education.

“Sex segregation doesn’t make public schools more like private schools,” says Allison Neal, staff attorney with the ACLU of Alabama. “If some private schools provide a better education, it’s because of their resources, not because they’re single sex.”


‘A Self-Confidence Thing’

Dr. Sax counters the mixed results of the Department of Education analysis by pointing out that most of the studies reviewed by the DOE involved merely segregating boys and girls in different classrooms without deploying SSPE teaching methods.

“The most obvious explanation for the variation is that merely placing girls and boys in separate classrooms accomplishes little,” he said. “For the single-sex format to lead to improvements in academic performance, teachers must understand the hard-wired differences in how girls and boys learn and incorporate the best practices for all-female classrooms and all-male classrooms.”

Dr. Sax has made a cottage industry of training public school teachers in those classroom practices. He maintains that two days of training, 14 hours total, is all that’s needed to prepare the staff of a public school to switch from coeducation to SSPE. Since 2002, Dr. Sax by his own count has led such two-day conversion seminars for more than 300 schools in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

One of them was Carman Trails, an elementary school in the Parkway School District, which is in the St. Louis area. Despite a lack of test data to prove the program is working, SSPE at Carman Trails has won over teachers, parents and students. The program is expanding. When it began two years ago, it was limited to first grade. For the 2008-2009 academic year, first- and second-graders were segregated by gender. In February 2009, at the urging of enthusiastic parents, principal Chris Raeker grew the program to include the third grade.

Raeker said that since implementing the SSPE program, fewer boys are being sent to the principal’s office, their overall attendance is up and they are participating in school clubs in higher numbers. First-grade teacher Alicia Wall said the program is benefiting girls in different ways. “I definitely see a self-confidence thing,” Wall said. “The girls are ready to learn and ready to work. In coed classes, they’re afraid to say something. They’re afraid to be wrong.”

The anecdotal success stories from schools like Carman Trails fail to sway opponents of SSPE, which include members of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Women. They argue that SSPE is not a silver bullet for improving performance in public schools. Further, they point out that segregating students by race based on supposed differences in brain function between, for example, Asian students and African American students, would be decried as racist and arouse widespread protests.

“School districts across the country are experimenting with sex-segregated programs, which rely on questionable brain science theories based on outdated gender stereotypes,” said the ACLU’s Martin. “Instead, these districts should focus on efforts that we know can improve all students’ education, like smaller classes and more teacher training and parental involvement.”