K-12 Single-Sex Education: What Does the Research
Say? ERIC Digest.
by Haag, Pamela
Interest in single-sex education has been reinvigorated by the educational
reform movement and by skepticism about whether the coeducational environment
fosters equitable treatment of boys and girls. However, the "for" or "against"
stance that shapes popular literature on single-sex education is misleading
because assessments of single-sex education's success or failure are contingent
on (1) stakeholders' goals; (2) indicators of success used; (3) historical
context; and (4) issues of selection bias, especially in the United States,
where single-sex schools are overwhelmingly private. Although research
on the effects of K-12 single-sex education is inconclusive in general,
some common themes emerge in the research literature. This Digest reviews
that research with particular attention to effects on girls' attitudes
ATTITUDINAL VARIABLES SELF-ESTEEM.
Studies of the effect of school type on girls' self-esteem suggest that
the sources of self-esteem for girls may differ in single-sex and coeducational
schools. Studies that have found higher self-esteem for girls in the single-sex,
as compared with the mixed-sex, environment have typically used multidimensional
measures composed of subcategories such as academic, athletic, and social
esteem. These studies' findings suggest that levels of girls' esteem in
these individual subcategories-but not their general self-concept or global
self- esteem-may differ between single-sex and mixed-sex environments.
For example, Cairns (1990) investigated self-esteem and locus of control
(an individual's sense of how environment hinders or facilitates her or
his goals) for students in secondary schools in Northern Ireland. He used
a multidimensional measure of "self- esteem" made up of four subcategories--social,
cognitive, athletic, and general--and concluded that single-sex schools
are associated with benefits in self-esteem and locus of control, cautioning
that his findings of higher esteem may be confined to cognitive self-concept.
In another study from Northern Ireland, Granleese and Joseph (1993) deployed
a domain-specific self- concept measure in their study of girls from one
single-sex and one coed secondary school. Girls at the single-sex school
were less critical of their own behavioral conduct than girls in the mixed
school. This lack of criticism was the single best predictor of global
self-worth in the all-girls' school. In the mixed-sex school, physical
appearance was the single best predictor of degree of global self-worth.
On the other hand, Brutsaert and Bracke (1994) found little effect of
school type in their study of sixth-grade girls and boys in Belgian elementary
schools. While girls and boys seemed unaffected by the gender organization
of the school, boys were negatively affected by a preponderance of female
teachers on staff, which lowered boys' overall sense of well-being. Smith's
(1996) 10-year study of students' attitudes and achievement in one all-boys'
and one all-girls' high school in Australia that had made the transition
to coeducation found that both girls' and boys' self-concept declined initially
but after 5 years increased to a level above that which was measured when
the students were in single-sex classrooms.
ATTITUDES TOWARD ACADEMIC SUBJECTS.
Several studies found that girls in single-sex schools may have stronger
preferences for subjects such as math and physics than their coeducated
peers. Mallam (1993) found that students in all-girls' Nigerian schools
favored math more than girls in coed Nigerian public boarding schools,
particularly when mathematics was taught by female teachers. Finally, Colley
et al. (1994) surveyed British students (ages 11-12 and 15-16 years) from
single-sex girls' and boys' schools and coeducational schools, asking them
to rank their school subject preferences. In the younger age group, girls
from single-sex schools showed stronger preferences than their coed peers
for stereotypical "masculine" subjects such as mathematics and science,
and boys from single-sex schools showed stronger preferences for stereotypical
"feminine" subjects such as music and art.
Research findings are ambiguous concerning the effects of single-sex
schools on girls' achievement. For many studies that did find gaps favoring
girls in single-sex schools, once findings were adjusted for socioeconomic
or ability variables, these differences diminished. For example, Harker
and Nash (1997) used data gathered in a longitudinal study of more than
5,000 eighth- grade students in New Zealand and controlled for individual
characteristics (such as socioeconomic status) and school type. As with
other studies, the researchers confirmed statistically significant differences
in favor of girls at single-sex schools. Yet after applying controls for
ability levels and for social and ethnic backgrounds, differences disappeared.
LePore and Warren (1997), using data from the National Educational Longitudinal
Study of 1988, found that boys in single-sex schools did not increase their
test scores more than boys in coeducational schools and that girls experienced
no statistically significant positive effects of single-sex school enrollment.
Studies that have found positive achievement outcomes attributable to
the single-sex environment have all dealt with single-sex schools rather
than classes. A study by Riordan (1990) used longitudinal data to clarify
the effects of single-sex education on different populations and curricular
areas. Riordan conducted separate analyses for students by sex and race
on academic and attitudinal outcomes. He discovered that among African
American and Hispanic American students attending Catholic secondary schools,
both males and females in single-sex schools scored higher on standardized
cognitive tests than their peers in mixed-sex schools. To explain the differences,
Riordan applied a set of school variables as controls. He argued that policies
in single-sex schools that emphasize the academic side of these variables
explained virtually all of the test score differences between the two types
of schools. Both males and females in single-sex schools also gained on
attitudinal variables such as leadership behavior, but much less of this
difference was explained by school variables.
Lee and Marks (1990) investigated the "sustained effects" of single-sex
schools on attitudes, behaviors, and values. They discovered that women
who had attended single-sex schools had higher educational aspirations
and were more likely than their coed counterparts to attend selective four-year
colleges. However, after controls were applied for attendance at a selective
college, effects on young women's aspirations disappeared, leading the
researchers to conclude that single-sex education may be an indirect influence
that facilitates entry into a select college in the first place. The study
found that girls educated in single-sex schools continued to hold less
stereotypic views of gender roles into college.
Lee and Lockheed's (1990) study of 1,012 students in ninth-grade Nigerian
public schools measured mathematics achievement and stereotypic views of
mathematics. Analyzing data drawn from the Second International Association
for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Lee and Lockheed found no
significant gender gap between mathematics scores of Nigerian boys and
girls, once other variables were taken into account. But girls in single-sex
schools outperformed other girls in mathematics, while boys in single-sex
schools did the reverse, after the study adjusted for substantial differences
in student background, school resources, and teacher attitudes. As in other
studies, girls in single-sex schools had a less stereotypical view of math,
while boys in single-sex schools had magnified stereotypes of the subject.
Studies of attitudinal variables yielded some consistent findings, including
differences in specific domains of self- concept between girls in single-
and mixed-sex schools (but no overall differences), and findings that support
the view that single-sex contexts foster less stereotypical views of subjects.
Studies also concur that students perceive single-sex school environments
to be more orderly.
Studies finding positive achievement effects attributable to school
type tend to view their findings as specific to certain contexts and group
characteristics (including socioeconomic status). Some studies recognize
that some single-sex schools are "doing something different" that may be
reproducible in the coeducational context. These studies view policy and
training interventions as particularly valuable.
Other studies have not claimed positive achievement effects for single-sex
programs. Although research finds that girls view the single-sex classroom
as more conducive to learning, research fails to confirm significant gain
in girls' math and science achievement in the single-sex classroom.
Finally, the research, while inconsistent in its assessments of whether
single-sex education is "better" than coeducation for girls, does reveal
areas of consensus on specific indicators, which may serve as starting
points for further research into how single-sex schools affect educational
This Digest was adapted from: Haag, Pamela. (1998). Single-sex education
in grades K-12: What does the research tell us? In American Association
of University Women Educational Foundation, Separated by sex: A critical
look at single-sex education for girls. Washington, DC: Author.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Brutsaert, H., & Bracke, P. (1994). Gender context of the elementary
school: Sex differences in affecting outcomes. EDUCATIONAL STUDIES, 20(1),
3-11. EJ 492 031.
Cairns, E. (1990). The relationship between adolescent perceived self-competence
and attendance at single-sex secondary school. BRITISH JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL
PSYCHOLOGY, 60, 210.
Colley, A., Comber, C., & Hargreaves, D. J. (1994). School subject
preferences of pupils in single-sex and co-educational secondary schools.
EDUCATIONAL STUDIES, 20(3), 379-385. EJ 507 527.
Granleese, J., & Joseph, S. (1993). Self-perception profile of adolescent
girls at a single-sex and a mixed-sex school. JOURNAL OF GENETIC PSYCHOLOGY,
Harker, R., & Nash, R. (1997, March). SCHOOL TYPE AND EDUCATION
OF GIRLS: CO-ED OR GIRLS ONLY? Paper presented at the annual meeting of
the American Educational Research Association, Chicago. ED 410 633.
Leder, G. C., & Forgasz, H. J. (1994, April). SINGLE-SEX MATHEMATICS
CLASSES IN A CO-EDUCATIONAL SETTING: A CASE STUDY. Paper presented at the
annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.
ED 372 946.
Lee, V. E., & Lockheed, M. M. (1990). The effects of single-sex
schooling on achievement and attitudes in Nigeria. COMPARATIVE EDUCATIONAL
REVIEW, 34(2), 209-231. EJ 412 239.
Lee, V. E., & Marks, H. M. (1990). Sustained effects of the single-sex
secondary school experience on attitudes, behaviors, and sex differences.
JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY, 82(3), 588.
LePore, P. C., & Warren, J. R. (1997). A comparison of single-sex
and coeducational Catholic secondary schooling: Evidence from the National
Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. AMERICAN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH JOURNAL,
34(3), 485-511. EJ 551 431.
Mallam, W. A. (1993). Impact of school-type and sex of the teacher on
female students' attitudes toward mathematics in Nigerian secondary schools.
EDUCATIONAL STUDIES IN MATHEMATICS, 24(2), 223-229. EJ 476 667.
Riordan, C. (1990). Single gender schools: Outcomes for African and
Hispanic Americans. In RESEARCH IN THE SOCIOLOGY OF EDUCATION AND SOCIALIZATION
(Vol. 18, pp. 177-205). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Smith, I. D. (1996, August). THE IMPACT OF COEDUCATIONAL SCHOOLING ON
STUDENT SELF-CONCEPT AND ACHIEVEMENT. Paper presented at the biennial meeting
of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, Quebec.
ED 400 090.