Researchers: Single-sex ed is ‘pseudoscience’

Single-sex education is based on “pseudoscience,” charge a team of neuroscience and child development experts in a Science article. There is “no empirical evidence” that segregating students by sex improves education, they argue. There’s plenty of  evidence it can increase gender stereotyping among students and adults.

The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education estimates more than 500 schools separate boys and girls for at least some classes, reports Inside School Research.

A new curriculum may yield a short-term gain because it’s evaluated by true believers, the scientists said.

“Novelty-based enthusiasm, sample bias, and anecdotes account for much of the glowing characterization of [single-sex] education in the media. Without blind assessment, randomized assignment to treatment or control experiences, and consideration of selection factors, judging the effectiveness of innovations is impossible.”

“There are some definite brain differences in boys and girls as children, but there are a lot of overlaps, and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that they learn differently,” Claremont McKenna Psychology Professor Diane Halpern told Inside School Research. “The underlying biology of learning is the same.”

Students in single-sex classes don’t perform significantly better than those in mixed-gender classes, once the students’ prior performance and characteristics are taken into account, the critics said.

Update: If there’s no evidence single-sex education is any worse than mixed classes — and there isn’t — then let parents decide, responds Paul Peterson on Ed Next. Many parents like the idea for a variety of reasons, he writes.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Going on fifty–closer than forty–years ago, I learned of the Hawthorne Effect.
    According to this, there’s a lot more than the Hawthorne Effect involved in the ostensible differences.
    Some schools are sex-segregated as a matter of course and some are novelties, done in part for experimentation–where experimentation is defined as demonstrating the validity of somebody’s idea.
    What could possibly go wrong?

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Single-sex education isn’t for the kids. It’s for the teachers (a single sex classroom is easier to control) and, secondarily, the parents (who don’t need to worry about their daughters as much).

    It’s got nothing to do with learning, although I wouldn’t be surprised if in a lot of cases there was a learning increase because of greater classroom control. More likely, though, it just makes the teachers more sane.

    • It may not change academic performance, but it reduces discipline problems, particularly in middle school. Most of the stupid things kids do are to impress the opposite sex.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Our religious Ed program went to single sex confirmation classes a few years ago. It really reduces discipline problems, especially among the 7th and 8th grade boys. The DRE says everyone is learner more–not because of “cognitive differences” between the sexes, but because the separate classes means less flirting, more attentiveness. There’s not the same need it the lower grades, because the kids don’t spend 98% of their waking time flirting!

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    Without blind assessment, randomized assignment to treatment or control experiences, and consideration of selection factors, judging the effectiveness of innovations is impossible.

    True. But this can be said of every–and I mean absolutely every–educational innovation. Smart boards? Project-based learning? Whole language? None of them have been shown to be effective in a way that would be accepted by the first chapter of a science textbook.

    If single-sex schools are justified by pseudo-science, then so is just about everything in education.

  5. A group called the “American Council for CoEducational Schooling” found no benefits to single-sex schools? I’m shocked, shocked, I tell you!

    My DH attended an all boys’ Catholic high school but some of the electives had girls from the sister school. He said that he preferred the all-male classes because it was easier to focus on academics in them.

    I would imagine that this is even more the case in the typical public high school where there isn’t a uniform and many girls wear outfits more appropriate for a nightclub than the classroom.

    • I know, it’s as though the group had a preset agenda or something…
      Amen on the clothing comment! Studious children will be studious regardless of the flirting at school, I think, but for those not-so-inclined to focusing on school, it’s only reasonable to remove an obvious distraction (the other sex)….now if we could just get rid of cell phones in class, too….

      • The distraction factor applies to middle schools, as well as high schools, particularly on the clothes issue. (even public schools used to have real dress codes; until late in the 60s, even jeans were forbidden). I was very grateful that my kids were serious year-round athletes; training was an acceptable excuse for not having much of a social life or dressing in the latest trashy style. Jeans or a nice athletic warmup set (not used for practices) were always acceptable and no one expected a swimmer to spend time on hairstyle or makeup. Everyone knew they swam two hours before school and three hours after.

  6. So, it’s o.k. for Science to publish a nonprofit’s political beliefs as research?

    A new curriculum may yield a short-term gain because it’s evaluated by true believers, the scientists said.

    Looking at the authors’ ACCES website, it does seem that they are true believers that no child should be permitted to attend a single-sex school. They state on that page,

    Single-sex schooling is harmful because:
    it promotes gender stereotyping
    it is unwelcoming to students who don’t conform to traditional roles
    it diverts funding and personnel from proven educational methods
    it says exclusion is acceptable and diversity not valued
    “Separate but equal” classrooms are never truly equal
    it fails to train students for shared leadership in adult workplaces, families and communities.


    In observing the boys who attend(ed) my sons’ single-sex school, I’d say none of that is true. The viewpoint sounds terribly political, as well.

    (Although why should I question the sages who’ve observed 57 preschoolers for two weeks. Surely, that’s definitive! )

  7. “it is unwelcoming to students who don’t conform to traditional roles…”

    I’ve heard that the opposite is true. Girls can be openly ferociously competitive and good at math and science at a girls’ school, while boys can be artsy or into literature without paying the usual social penalty.

    “it diverts funding and personnel from proven educational methods”

    Why the heck would single sex education be more expensive?

    “Although why should I question the sages who’ve observed 57 preschoolers for two weeks.”

    Really? That was the research basis? You’re joking, right? I didn’t even realize that there was such a thing as girls’ or boys’ only preschool. Single sex education usually starts much later.

  8. From the edweek blog: Fabes and Arizona State colleagues, professor Carol Lynn Martin and associate professor Laura D. Hannish, study children’s interaction in same-sex and co-ed playgroups. They have found that “separating boys and girls raises the salience of gender, and when you do, that increases sexism.”

    For example, co-author Lynn S. Liben, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University, also found in a 2010 study that preschool students divided into separate groups by sex for two weeks showed more gender-stereotyped attitudes and played less with children of the opposite sex.

    Children play less with friends who aren’t in their class. That’s why mothers become so worried when a child with few friends lands in a class without those friends, especially in early elementary school. It’s a proximity thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sexist. If classes were divided by last names, A-M and N-Z, the Ds would play less with the Rs. Out of sight, out of mind.

  9. Charles R. Williams says:

    What these people call gender stereotyping is one of the benefits of single-sex education.

  10. I didn’t attend an all women’s college because of brain differences – it was so that I could be free from the insane life I lead in high school in which the only important thing was who you were dating, not whether you were studying.

  11. Single-sex classrooms are great! I failed US Government in high school because I couldn’t take my eyes off the incredibly sexy Chinese girl sitting up front. Having taught at an all-boys Catholic school, I can say that there is a camaraderie and sense of freedom the boys feel in a classroom made up only of males. The classes I taught in English were a helluva lot of fun, and this fun was due in no small part to the fact that there were no girls in the classes. The writers of the article have an axe to grind. They are gender politicians who see any kind of exclusion anywhere as evil. In modern America, males are losing personal space more and more every year as women insist on infringing upon it. The single-sex classroom is a great thing not only for teachers, but for the kids as well, but only the politically naive or politically incorrect (read=wise) get it.

  12. Many fads are being born with the supposed “proof” of neuroscience. Time will dispose of most of those fads. However, single-sex education predates neurologists.

    One should think of the gravity of the “threat” of single-sex education. There are some 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the US. Of those, some 506 public elementary/secondary schools have some sort of single sex programs–which could be as little as single sex classes in a coed school. According to the National Association for Single-Sex Education, there are 116 public school single-sex campuses (

    Is .12% of public school campuses a grave threat?

  13. Should we segregate schools by skin color, too?

    • Darren, doesn’t determining school districts by residence (i.e. income) produce very homogeneous schools?

    • Darren –
      Its already being done. Have a nearby inner-city school with “houses” that reflect the various interests and abilities of the student body and each house has its own set of core subject classes. In other words, there’s the tech-oriented Asian and smart-white house, the artsy mostly white house, general interest lower-white and bit of a mix house, and the remedial mostly black and hispanic house. Of course, there are exceptions to the rules, but the demographics of each house are starkly different.