Feature                                                    Pages 32-35 


The Promise of

Single-Sex Classes

Based on her time in five schools, the author questions why some want to ban the practice before key questions are studied


Sandra Stotsky

The teacher tossed a Styrofoam basketball to the outstretched arms of a 5th-grade boy. He caught it like a pro. Having the ball tossed his way was his reward for raising his hand to point out a missing comma or period in a paragraph with omitted punctuation marks projected onto a chalkboard at the front of the classroom.

The other boys in this all-boys’ class in a Farmington, Ark., school watched him like hawks as he went to the board and added the missing comma. Seconds after he tossed the ball back to the teacher, other arms shot up about other missing conventions. If, after catching a ball, the student didn’t have a legitimate addition to make, he’d have to toss it back and no more balls would come his way that day.

I have been visiting many single-sex classrooms in northwest Arkansas to gain a better understanding of why so many parents, teachers, principals and students seem to like them and what gender-adapted pedagogy looks like. South Carolina has so many single-sex classes that its state education department hired a statewide coordinator to help schools create, implement and sustain them.

After trying them out in 2009-10, the Siloam Springs, Ark., schools found single-sex classrooms so much in demand by parents — and teachers eager to teach them — that the district now is experimenting with “looped” and departmentalized single-sex classes in the middle elementary grades. During a pilot year, a half dozen single-sex classes operated in grades 2, 3 and 4. The number escalated in 2010-11 to 16, with classes added at 1st and 5th grades. And more girls than boys (and their parents) requested single-sex classes.

Dangerous Practice?
Despite the enthusiasm and the absence of definitive research on the pros and cons of single-sex classes, a 2011 article in Science, titled “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” by a new organization called American Council for CoEducational Schooling, or ACCES, came out with the astonishing conclusion that single-sex education is ineffective and possibly dangerous. The authors reported no new research. They reviewed existing studies and used them to claim they proved their case.

The existing research and the classrooms I have visited provide no support for the negative claims. A report two colleagues and I wrote about two elementary schools in Arkansas we had studied through site visits in 2008-09 contained no red flags.

The goal of our research was to find out whether single-sex classes in these two elementary schools seemed to make a difference in boys’ reading achievement. In addition to visiting classes, I talked with the principals, teachers and a few parents and students to learn more about the dynamics of single-sex classes and the changes in pedagogy they may lead to.

Unexplored Effects
When we reviewed the research on single-sex schools, we discovered we might be the first to examine single-sex classes in a public co-educational elementary school in the United States. Most of the research is focused on single-sex schools (chiefly private secondary schools), not single-sex classes in coeducational public schools. It is worth noting that a 2005 review by the American Institutes for Research, heavily referenced by ACCES, excluded studies on single-sex classes in coeducational schools without giving a reason and ended up with only 40 studies to examine, most of which were on high school students in private or Catholic girls’ schools.

Mysteriously, a 2008 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education after it amended the Title IX regulation in October 2006 (to provide school districts more flexibility to implement single-sex programs) also offered no explanation for excluding single-sex classes in public schools from the study. This study was not designed to look for academic results, but it did suggest that “public single-sex schools may have advantages for both boys and girls in terms of fostering socio-emotional health and promoting positive peer interactions.”

In sum, little research exists on the effects of single-sex schooling on academic achievement (boys or girls), and most of what has been done is at the secondary level and on a whole-school basis. We need to find out whether it can affect academic achievement in public elementary schools. In particular, we need to look at reading achievement, especially for boys. 


Additional Resources

Despite the funds expended on reading over the past 35 years, both boys and girls at the high school level read no better than they did decades ago, if not less well by the time they graduate from high school. Moreover, girls consistently outscore boys by a wide margin, regardless of the particular test. Results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card,” show over one grade-level difference between girls and boys by grade 12 and even more of a difference in writing, which is dependent on reading.

In addition, high school graduation rates, college admission rates and doctorates awarded show declining percentages for males. A 2006 report by the American Council on Education, a higher education lobby, tries to claim there is no gender problem because both boys and girls are doing better over time compared to each group’s earlier numbers. The problem is that a much larger proportion of girls than boys are doing better.

Our Discoveries
We collected test data from Arkansas’ annual state assessments of literacy in two schools for 2008-09, using scores on the literacy section on two successive assessments as pre- and post-measures. In addition, we obtained test-score data in one school from the reading and language sections of the nationally normed test that the school administers every year, as well as data on absenteeism and disciplinary referrals.

Boys in single-sex classes were compared to boys in mixed classes, and girls in single-sex classes were compared to girls in mixed classes. We could not combine the results across schools for academic or social outcomes because the grade levels of these single-sex classes differed, and one school used self-contained classes, the other departmentalized instruction.

Elementary School A had single-sex classes only in grade 5. According to the principal, the three classes — one mixed, one for boys and one for girls — were all self-contained and similar except for gender. About half of the children in the school are English language learners.

All three classes gained significantly from 4th grade to 5th grade, although students in the mixed class did not gain as much those in the girls’ class or the boys’ class. However, boys in the boys’ class gained significantly more in literacy than boys in the mixed class.

Elementary School B also had one boys’ class, one girls’ class and one mixed class, though in grade 6. Each class had the same teacher for the departmentalized subject. The principal assigned children to the single-sex and mixed classes at the end of 5th grade. As in Elementary School A, she aimed for an even spread of ability and demographics, so there was no strictly random assignment of children. The library, reading, writing, mathematics and science teachers (all but one were female) shared their perceptions on the differences in teaching all-boy, all-girl and mixed classes every day.

On average, students in all three classes gained significantly from grade 5 to grade 6, but there was no difference between boys in the all-boys class and boys in the mixed class on the state’s literacy test. However, on the nationally normed reading test, boys in the mixed class gained significantly more than boys in the all-boys class. The data on absences and discipline referrals for School B showed no significant differences by year, class or gender.

Favorable Views
To judge from this one-year study, we could not see any academic downside with single-sex classes. However, even though the data on absenteeism and disciplinary procedures showed no significant differences, there may be some possible trade-offs in social behaviors. That is, both desirable and undesirable behaviors may emerge in single-sex classes.

The teachers, parents and principals agreed that single-sex classes seem to provide less distraction for both sexes, better accommodation of each sex’s interests, better learning environment for shy or quiet children, more opportunity to use examples for academic concepts and class readings tailored to each sex and more opportunity for leadership skills of each sex to emerge.

On the other hand, a few teachers and parents perceived them as causing girls to become chattier and boys less polite and too competitive. Thus it would be desirable to gather data on both academic achievement and social behaviors in children who have been in single-sex classes for more than one year.

We cannot generalize from these two studies because the two schools structured instruction differently (self-contained or departmentalized). We also cannot disentangle teacher effects in the school in which boys in the all-boy class did significantly better than boys in the mixed class. She may have been a terrific teacher no matter what kind of class she taught. A departmentalized approach in the upper elementary grades (as in School B) makes for a clearer study design because each teacher of each subject teaches all three types of classes.

Therefore, we think the questions we developed based on informal interviews with the principals, teachers and parents in these two schools are the important results of the study. These are at least some of the questions further research should study.

  • Would there be more gains in reading for boys if they were in single-sex classes for more than one year? One year may not be enough time for boys to show gains.
  • Can teachers better capitalize on the visible differences in reading interests between boys and girls to direct boys in single-sex classes to more varied and more sophisticated kinds of reading? Boys may not be sufficiently challenged to read more mature works in a student-choice-directed reading curriculum.
  • Does the organization of the instructional day make a difference in recruiting or retaining teachers of single-sex classes for boys? A departmentalized approach may help to reduce the amount of energy a teacher needs in dealing with the energy level of a classroom full of boys all day every day.
  • Would more male teachers in the upper elementary grades lead to greater effectiveness of single-sex classes for boys in reading?

Sandra Stotsky is a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark., where she holds the Twenty-First Century Chair in Teacher Quality. She is the author of The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). E-mail: sstotsky@aol.com



Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue