the pseudoscience of single-sex schooling

That’s the name of a new article in the journal Science claiming that single sex (SS) schools do not lead to better learning outcomes. The authors, Diane Halpern of Claremont and seven others, claim higher scores for SS students are results of selection bias and sample censoring:

For example, students at a public middle school in the Southwest United States boast higher test scores than most students in their district. But they had significantly higher test scores in the year before admission than girls who applied but were not admitted, although admission was reported to be a lottery, and their subsequent achievement was no better than that of students in a coeducational program with similar entry-level score.


In addition, underperforming children in SS schools often transfer out prematurely, which inflates final performance outcomes.

They also claim that there is no evidence that male and female brains operate differently with respect to learning.  While there are gendered differences in brain anatomy, they claim that there is no link to learning.

My main disagreement disagreement is in their response that SS schooling can effectively counter the issue of teachers treating male and female students differently. The article switches to the effects of in-class segregation. Halpern at al claim, correctly, that separating students prevent students from cooperating and increases sex typing (e.g., girls act more feminine).

But there are two issues. These studies, if I understand them, are about separating students into two groups within a class. SS education physically separates people into separate classes. Second, I didn’t see evidence showing that teachers treat female students better in mixed classes. Evidence about sex typing doesn’t address teacher interaction. Even if mixed classes lead to more gender mixing, teachers may still preferentially treat males. Maybe not. Perhaps it’s in the literature. If so, it should be discussed.

As a higher education researcher, I am familiar with the evidence addressing under-represented minorities and their achievement. Generally, it’s very hard to get under-performing groups to do better. Also, it’s hard to get experimental evidence but there is observational evidence. For example, one often cited study has claimed that Asian American benefit from a strong peer counseling network  that is non-existent for African Americans. I.e., Asian American college students build lots of study groups that others don’t. This suggests that intensive supplemental work, which may be focused on one group, may be effective.

Overall, I am still not a strong proponent of single sex, or single race, education. One should learn to succeed in the world as it is. We should also demand that our educators treat all students alike. Unless SS education had unambiguously strong effects, we should probably not be doing it.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 3, 2011 at 12:09 am

Posted in education, fabio

2 Responses

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  1. Yes, I would think segregation IN CLASS would really have almost the opposite effects as single-sex education as a whole. And furthermore, it isn’t really only about single-sex, but about designing an educational environment for women. As an alumna of a women’s college, I had a number of classes in which men from surrounding colleges enrolled, but men on our campus were clearly outsiders to women’s spaces and thus did not create the same kind of dynamics we were used to from our high schools.

    A couple of other points: I think that the cultural and class-based dynamics of the community do make a difference. The boys I went to high school with absolutely dominated discussions; the boys in my college classes, despite being the numerical majority, seem to do so to a much lesser extent. However, in group work, it is almost always the girl who serves as the secretary…

    Finally, what age/grade level does the research consider? My acquaintance with prior research on this subject suggests that single-sex education is particularly effective for middle school and college girls, and much less so for elementary or high school students and for boys. In college there are additional non-classroom issues that matter, too: institutions which enroll men, but where men make up fewer than 40% of the population, tend to result in extremely bad if not dangerous dating and social scenes for women.



    November 3, 2011 at 12:35 pm

  2. “Unless single-sex education had unambiguously strong effects, we should probably not be doing it.”

    My attitude is that unless something has unambiguously strong NEGATIVE effects, we should probably allow some choice and study the results. Of course, choice isn’t always possible, and when it isn’t I agree that the onus is on those arguing for any form of segregated education.

    I do recall a couple stylized facts, which are interesting even if they don’t affect our opinions on policy at all.
    Women at the U.S. Air Force (or was it Naval) Academy learned science better when randomly assigned to female profs.
    Boys and Girls in secondary schools showed greater test-score gains when a higher percentage of their class was female… probably due to reduced classroom disruptions.


    Michael Bishop

    November 3, 2011 at 6:01 pm

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