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Controversial New Study Concludes Single-Sex Education Doesn't Boost Student Performance

A paper in Science says single-sex education can hinder kids' relationships with members of the opposite sex, but other experts disagree.

For the past two years, Chicago's Urban Prep Academy, the nation’s first all-male public charter high school, has made headlines for sending 100 percent of its graduating seniors on to college. But according to a controversial new paper published in the latest issue of Science, being all-male has nothing to do with the school's academic success.

The eight authors of the paper, "The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling" (PDF), say there’s no legitimate research indicating that gender segregation helps Urban Prep—or the over 500 other single-sex schools in the United States—boost students' academic performance. In fact, they argue, same-sex education can be harmful to children because it increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism. In the case of Urban Prep, which serves a largely black and low-income student population, the authors say success is the result of "the quality of the student body, demanding curricula, and many other features known to also promote achievement at coeducational schools."

The paper is a review of existing research, not an original study—lead author Diane F. Halpern, a psychologist at Claremont McKenna College and a past president of the American Psychological Association, says she and her colleagues "cited major studies that show there's no benefit to single-sex education." They rely heavily on a U.S. Department of Education review and data from the Programme for International Student Assessment that both found "little overall difference between SS and mixed-sex academic outcomes."According to the paper, "the strongest argument against SS education is that it reduces boys' and girls' opportunities to work together". The result, the authors say, is that girls become sex-typed and "boys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive."

Tim King, who founded Urban Prep, is unhappy with the way his school is portrayed in the paper. "Black boys are dropping out in really high rates, are having high contact with the criminal justice system, and enrolling in college but not completing it," he says. "We created a school to address those issues specifically." King doesn’t believe it would be impossible to address such problems in a coed environment, "just more difficult."

He disagrees with the idea that students at same-sex schools are sex-typed. "You have students who are doing the girl roles when they’re reading Shakespeare, students who have a better understanding of black manhood and masculinity," says King. The school environment celebrates students because they got an A on a test—which counters messages the boys hear on the street that "you can't read a book because that’s acting like a girl and you’re a punk."

Leonard Sax, founder and director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, is similarly dismayed by the paper, which he says is seriously flawed. In particular, Sax says, much of the research the authors cites actually took place in coed preschool classrooms. And the studies cited were all "authored or co-authored by one or more of the authors of the Science paper," he says.

Sax has invited all eight authors to attend NASSPE’s upcoming international conference, which will feature Alisha Kiner, principal of Memphis' Booker T. Washington High School. The school, which is coed but has had single-sex classrooms since 2007, won Obama's 2011 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. The graduation rate has soared from 55 to 82 percent, and as a prize, President Obama delivered the senior class' commencement address. Sax says Kiner will explain why she believes single-sex classrooms are an important element to her school’s success. "Before you dismiss" it Sax wrote in an email to the authors, "wouldn’t it be of value actually to meet her and hear what she has to say?" But Halpern says the group was "told they could attend but could not speak," so they do not plan to go.

Experts on both sides of the debate frame their position as an issue of fairness. Single-sex education should "not be a choice that people allow for public education," Halpern says. Sax counters that the Halpern and her colleagues are "asking the wrong question." They're asking "which is better, single-sex or coeducation? We are not asserting that single-sex education is categorically better than coeducation." But, he says, if 10 percent of children "would benefit at some point in their childhood or adolescence from being in a single-sex classroom or school, why shouldn't that option be available?"

Photo courtesy of Urban Prep High School

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