For most of our nation's history, coeducation has been the norm in our public elementary and secondary schools. In recent years, however, interest in public single-sex education has increased substantially. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 authorized school districts to use local or innovative program funds to offer single-sex schools and classrooms consistent with applicable laws. Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Education published amendments to the Title IX regulations in October 2006 that would provide school districts additional flexibility to implement single-sex programs. In anticipation of an increase in the number of public single-sex schools, the U.S. Department of Education contracted with RMC Research Corporation to conduct a descriptive study of existing single-sex public schools that would address the following evaluation questions:
- What is currently known about the effects of single-sex schooling on student achievement and other outcomes?
- What is known about the causes of those outcomes?
- What are the characteristics of public single-sex schooling? What are the contextual, instructional, and behavioral practices unique to single-sex schools?
- What perceived benefits or disadvantages are associated with single-sex schooling?
- What studies, including research questions and methodology, would be most appropriate to advance the knowledge base in this field?
To address these questions the study includes a systematic review of the literature available in 2004, a survey of public single-sex schools, and a preliminary exploratory observational study of a subsample of currently operating public single-sex schools. The observational study was designed to yield three types of descriptive information about single sex schools: the schools' demographic characteristics, the professional characteristics of the teachers and principals, and the teachers' and principals' perceptions of the school characteristics. Both the survey and the observations were confined to those single-sex schools that were operational as of fall 2003.
Although the study describes characteristics that are somewhat more prevalent in single-sex schools, the results are not causal evidence that single-sex schools improve the quality of academic and behavioral interactions between teachers and students. Instead, these descriptive findings are a potential source of hypotheses for further investigations that utilize experimental or quasi-experimental designs.
Key findings that emerged from the study include:
- The results of the systematic review are mixed, though the findings suggest some support for the premise that single-sex schooling can be helpful. Among the concurrent academic accomplishment outcomes, 53 percent were null (favored neither single-sex nor coed schooling), 10 percent had mixed results across sex or grade levels, 35 percent favored single-sex schooling, and only 2 percent favored coed schooling. Among the concurrent socio-emotional outcomes, 39 percent were null, 6 percent were mixed, 45 percent favored single-sex schooling, and only 10 percent favored coed schooling.
- The site visit observers in the eight single-sex school sites found little evidence of substantive modifications to curricula to address the specific needs of either boys or girls, although some teachers who were interviewed provided examples of using support materials specific to the interests of girls.
- In the eight elementary and middle schools visited, site visitors observed more positive academic and behavioral interactions between teachers and students in the single-sex schools than in the comparison coed schools.
- Both principals and teachers believed that the main benefits of single-sex schooling are decreasing distractions to learning, and improving student achievement.
- Teachers cited greater benefits of single-sex schooling for girls than for boys in 5 of the 10 benefit categories. That is, teachers believed that girls benefit more than boys from better peer interactions, a greater emphasis on academic behaviors, a greater degree of order and control, socio-emotional benefits, and safe behavior. Teachers believed that both sexes benefit equally from single-sex education in terms of a greater sensitivity to sex differences in learning and maturation.
- In separate focus groups, both parents and students cited essentially the same benefits as the teachers and implied that they chose the single-sex school for these reasons.
- Teachers in single-sex high schools rated problems with student behavior as less serious than teachers in coed schools, but the opposite was true in middle schools. There were no statistically significant differences between single-sex and coed school teachers' ratings of problems at the elementary school level.
- In the 10 case study schools the site visitors observed more positive student interactions for the single-sex schools than for the coed comparison schools. Compared to students in the coeducational schools, students in elementary and middle single sex schools exhibited a greater sense of community, interacted more positively with one another, showed greater respect for their teachers, were less likely to initiate class disruptions, and demonstrated more positive student role modeling than students in the coed comparison schools. (The site visits did not include a coeducational comparison high school.)
- The research team suggests that future research use prior empirical work (both qualitative and quantitative) to identify variables that should be measured and potentially used as statistical controls. Researchers should randomly assign students who wish to attend single-sex schools to single sex or coed schools and plan on following the study participants over a relatively long period of time. A longitudinal study will yield data that researchers can use to evaluate both the effects of any randomization failure and the relative effects of attending a single-sex school.
Systematic Literature Review
The systematic review of the literature on single-sex schooling 1 identified 40 quantitative studies that met criteria requiring studies to at least use comparison studies with statistical controls in addition to quasi-experimental and experimental studies. These 40 studies were the highest quality research currently available on the topic. (Over 300 other studies were examined and excluded from the review because they did not meet the selection criteria.) The 40 studies provided 112 outcomes because most studies examined more than one outcome. Most of the 112 outcomes were in two areas: short-term academic achievement (43 outcomes) and short-term socio-emotional development (49 outcomes).
The results of the literature review were mixed, though the findings suggested some support for the premise that single-sex schooling can be helpful, especially for certain outcomes related to academic achievement and more positive academic aspirations. The literature review did not, however, include any public single-sex schools in the United States; thus the findings should not be generalized to this population. In addition, the studies had some analytical weaknesses that may have inflated the statistical significance of their findings. Overall, there were more socio-emotional outcomes favoring single-sex schools than academic outcomes favoring single-sex schools. In addition, more socio-emotional outcomes favored girls in single-sex schools (70 percent of 30 outcomes) than boys in single-sex schools (40 percent of 25 outcomes). It should be noted that the studies included in the literature review all involved matched comparison designs and none were random assignment experiments, the "gold standard" of evidence for assessing the impact of an educational intervention.
|Outcome Measure Category and Topic||Total Outcomes||Percentage of Outcomes|
|Concurrent Academic Accomplishment||43||35%||2%||53%||10%|
|Long-Term Academic Accomplishment||4||25%||0%||75%||0%|
|Concurrent Adaptation and Socio-Emotional Development||49||45%||10%||39%||6%|
|Long-Term Adaptation and Socio-Emotional Development||10||50%||20%||30%||0%|
|Perceived School Culture||4||50%||0%||50%||0%|
Note. SS = single-sex. CE = coed.
Exhibit reads: A total of 43 outcomes were reported across all studies in the area of concurrent academic accomplishment, and 35 percent of those outcomes were pro-single-sex education, 2 percent were pro-coeducation, 53 percent were null (indicating no differences between single-sex and coed schools), and 10 percent were mixed (supporting single-sex schools or coed schools for some but not all subgroups).
Source: http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/single-sex/index.html (2005).
Data Sources for Surveys and Site Visit Observations
Survey and observation data provided information on the characteristics of public single-sex schooling in the United States. The study team distributed surveys in February 2005 to principals and teachers in 19 of the 20 single-sex schools in operation in fall 2003. 2 The recipients included four elementary schools, five middle schools, four combined middle and high schools, and six high schools. In 17 of these schools, the students were predominantly nonwhite, and in 18 of the 19 schools most students were eligible for free or reduced price meals. Only 6 of the schools were in operation prior to 2000 (see Exhibit ES2).
All but one of the principals returned the principal survey (95 percent), and 88 percent of the teachers returned the teacher survey for a total sample size of 18 principals and 478 teachers. To draw comparisons between single-sex and coed schools, the study team analyzed Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) data from 1999–2000 and 2003–04 from 150 demographically similar coed schools (the sample included 146 principals and 723 teachers). The study team used a propensity score analysis to derive a subsample of the nationally representative SASS sample that best matched the single-sex schools on several demographic characteristics.
To gather more qualitative information to describe the characteristics of single-sex public schools, observation teams visited eight single-sex and two coed schools. The study team attempted to recruit two single-sex schools and two matching coed schools at each level (elementary, middle, and high school) for site visit observations. Principals of the single-sex schools suggested coed schools in their districts that were most similar to their own schools in terms of student race and poverty level. However, most of the coed comparison schools contacted did not agree to participate. Due to the difficulty obtaining cooperation from comparison schools, the sample contains only two coed comparison schools (one elementary and one middle school). Due to the small number of site visit schools (two comparison and eight single sex), the sample is not representative of single sex or coeducational schools. However, this sample does include 40 percent of the single sex schools that were in existence at that time.
Staff and Student Characteristics
Overall, single-sex and coed school principal and teacher characteristics were similar across the two groups in terms of education. However, teachers in single-sex schools were less likely to be African-American and had fewer years of teaching experience than teachers in the coed schools. Teachers in single-sex schools were also less likely to have standard certification and more likely to have probationary, temporary, or emergency certification. (Note that this information was collected prior to the NCLB deadline for meeting Highly Qualified Teacher requirements). Student characteristics were also similar across the two samples, although fewer students in single-sex schools were eligible for free or reduced price meals. The majority of students in both single-sex and coed schools were African-American.
|School Location||Grades||Sex||No. of Stu-dents||No. of Tea-chers||Percent Non-White||Percent FRPM||Year Started|
aCharter school. FRPM = free or reduced-price meals. BG = Boys and Girls (or Dual Academy).
Exhibit reads: The single-sex school located in New York opened in 2002 and serves 192 boys and girls in Grades K–3 and has 18 teachers. All of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals and 97 percent are nonwhite.
Source: RMC Research, Single-Sex School Principal Survey, 2005.
The single-sex schools were more likely than the coed schools to receive Title I funds, but the coed schools were more likely to offer programs for limited English proficient students. The single-sex schools offered more extended day and parent involvement programs than the coed schools, whereas the coed schools were more likely to have drug and violence prevention programs.
The study found few differences in the percentage of teachers and principals who participated in various types of professional development. However, fewer than half of the surveyed single-sex school teachers received any professional development on single-sex education (33 percent at the elementary school level, 24 percent at the middle school level, and 15 percent at the high school level). Professional development on single-sex education was typically limited to a speaker visiting the school or a book presented to the teachers, although in a few cases single-sex education was discussed on a monthly basis.
Perceived Benefits of Single-Sex Schooling
Through principal and teacher surveys and site visit observations, the study team collected data on the perceived advantages and effects of single-sex schooling. Single-sex school teachers and principals listed decreased distractions to learning, improved student achievement, and the ability to address the unique learning styles and interests of boys and girls to be among the top five benefits of single-sex schooling. Generally, both teachers and principals embraced the concept of single-sex schooling.
Sex Differences in Perceived Benefits of Single-Sex Schooling. Teachers also noted differences in single-sex school benefits for boys and girls. Specifically, teachers believed that girls benefit more than boys from better peer interactions, a stronger emphasis on academic behaviors, a greater degree of order and control, socio-emotional benefits, and safe behavior. Teachers perceived that both sexes benefit equally from single-sex education in terms of a greater teacher sensitivity to sex differences in learning and maturation.
School climate refers to the sum of the values, cultures, safety practices, and organizational structures within a school and their effects on students. Using data from the single-sex school surveys and the SASS coed school survey sample to compare the two groups on school climate, the study found that teachers in single-sex high schools rated problems with student behavior as less serious and also experienced greater instructional support than coed school teachers. In contrast, single-sex middle school teachers reported less instructional support and more student misbehavior than coed teachers. There were no statistically significant differences between single-sex and coed elementary school teachers on these factors.
Student Interactions and Behaviors
Observation data collected during the 10 site visits were more positive for single-sex schools than for the respective grade level comparison schools in this sample with regard to student interactions and behaviors. Students in the single-sex elementary and middle schools visited exhibited a greater sense of community, interacted more positively with one another, showed greater respect for their teachers, were less likely to initiate class disruptions, and demonstrated more positive student role modeling than students in the coed comparison school sample. Single-sex school staff, students, and parents also emphasized the positive socio-emotional benefits of attending a single-sex school.
Student Academic Achievement and Behaviors
Student achievement data for the single-sex schools are fairly typical of high-poverty schools in which the majority of the students do not meet state achievement standards. According to the principal survey data, 49 percent of students were at or above proficient in reading and 35 percent were at or above proficient in mathematics on state assessments at the elementary school level. At the middle school level, 28 percent of students were at or above proficient in reading and 22 percent were at or above proficient in mathematics. At the high school level these figures were 54 percent and 46 percent respectively.
Researchers visited 164 single-sex classrooms and 45 coed classrooms in eight single-sex and two coed schools. The study team found that students in the single-sex elementary schools were more likely to complete homework than were students in the coed comparison elementary school, but both types of students appeared equally engaged in academic activities. Students in the single-sex middle schools were more likely to be engaged in academic activities and to complete homework than students in the comparison middle school. In the single-sex high schools, students exhibited high levels of engagement in academic activities and homework completion; however, the study did not include a comparison high school. These results must be interpreted with caution because of the small number of schools observed.
Student Extracurricular Activities
Extracurricular activity offerings such as clubs or sports were more limited in the single-sex elementary and middle schools than in their respective coed comparison schools, although students in the single-sex schools stated that the opportunities for them to engage in activities and pursue leadership roles were ample. At the high school level, the array of extracurricular offerings was correlated with school size, and the larger of the two high schools visited offered a wider variety of activities.
The systematic review of the 40 best quantitative studies lends some empirical support to the hypothesis that single sex schools may be helpful in terms of academic achievement and socio-emotional development. The survey and observational studies found that public single-sex schools served primarily nonwhite, high-poverty students in urban areas. Descriptive evidence from the surveys and site visits suggest that single sex schools may have advantages for both boys and girls in terms of fostering socio-emotional health and promoting positive peer interactions. Other perceived benefits of single-sex schooling cited by teachers and principals include a greater degree of order and control and fewer distractions in the classroom. The study design does not support inferences about the effects of single sex schools on socio-emotional outcomes. Also, because the study was descriptive, the study team was not able to determine whether these socio-emotional benefits had an impact on student achievement. The study team did, however, identify a need for more professional development for teachers on meeting the distinct needs of boys and girls in single-sex public schools.
The report concludes with descriptions of areas of study and methodologies that could further advance research in single-sex schooling. Addressed are both the advantages of randomized trials and strong quasi-experimental designs in future studies of single-sex schooling and the challenges inherent in implementing such studies.
1 http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/single-sex/index.html (2005).
2 According to the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, there were 88 single sex schools open in the United States as of fall 2007.