Should I send my child to a single-sex school?

Learn more about single-sex schools, and what advocates and detractors say. Then decide for yourself.

By Psyche Pascual

It’s a schoolyard like any other. Students stream out of class and claim the playground in a hail of shrieks. A basketball soars into the air and lands squarely in the hoop, and there’s more hooting and hollering. There’s something different about this schoolyard. Only boys attend school here. Girls are nowhere in sight.

At a classroom across the country, students cluster around a machine they are building, soldering irons and wrenches in hand. But in this room, all of the kids are girls, and they’re learning about robots by making one themselves.

Is a single-sex school right for my child?

Families pick single-sex schools for a variety of reasons. Some feel that single-sex schools offer fewer distractions, while others believe they offer a more equitable learning environment, still others choose a single-sex school because it aligns with their religious beliefs. In many cases, families choose a school for other features — a curriculum that reflects their child's interests, for example — and the fact that the school is single sex has little to do with the choice.

In the long run, parents should consider the academic strengths of a school and their child’s interests first and foremost. If your daughter is a science geek, for example, then you'll want to choose a school with a strong science program, whether it's single-sex or co-ed. If a boy loves music, and the best choir program is at a single-sex school, than that may be the best fit.

Explain to your child what a single-sex school is and what it offers. Visit the school, and make sure your child gets to sit in on classes and talk to other students. Make sure your child knows what the environment is like without members of the opposite sex to play with all day long. Some kids welcome the idea. Others may not.

A modern phenomenon: the rise of single-sex schools

The idea of single-sex schools may seem quaint and old-fashioned — reminiscent of Jane Eyre, or Madeline, who walked through the streets of Paris with her all-girl classmates “in two straight lines,” in Ludwig Bemelmans' beloved children's books.

In fact, single-sex education is rapidly taking root across the United States. What used to be offered only in private schools is spreading to public classrooms across the country. Why has single-sex education seen such rapid 21st-century gains?

In 2006, a key change in Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools, made it legal for publicly funded school districts to create single-sex schools and classrooms. Since then, private and public single-sex enrollments have grown. Supporters attribute the spread of single-sex education to the fact that it raises the bar for girls and boys, giving both sexes an opportunity to thrive and overcome traditional sex roles. But critics believe the science behind these claims is seriously flawed.

What you might find in a single-sex school or classroom

  • Specialized curriculum: Yes, the basics are important, but so is participation in community service, choir, visual arts, drama, health and fitness, and business and entrepreneurial studies. At some single-sex schools, PE isn’t running around the track; instead, students learn Pilates, hip-hop dance, and yoga. Some single-sex schools give students a head start in basic life skills, such as doing laundry and budgeting money. At Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, Maryland, girls take classes on financial literacy and social entrepreneurship. All girls from third to twelfth grade get a dose of money smarts in the school’s Financial Literacy and Social Entrepreneurship program. At the Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland, CA, performance is incorporated into the school’s music program. John Lynch, the school's academic director, says the fact that Pacific Boychoir Academy is single-sex allows students to relax and feel more confident. "They get the freedom from the pressure of being around girls," he says. "This is a fragile time in boys' lives...It allows boys to be little boys longer.”
  • Gender-busting courses: Some boys' schools explore traditional male roles and teach skills traditionally associated with women, such as sewing and cooking. Girls get classes in team leadership and robotics. At Columbus School for Girls in Columbus, Ohio, for example, an all-girls team builds robots and competes in the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program.
  • Small class sizes and enrollment: Some single-sex schools have a student body of only a few dozen, making it possible for class sizes to remain small and instruction to be highly personalized.
  • Public school option: Single-sex education is growing at public school districts across the country as an alternative kind of charter school. There are now about 500 public schools that offer single-sex education around the country. Of these, 390 are co-ed schools that offer a single-sex classroom. At Public School 140 in the Bronx, for example, girls have their own classroom. Students follow the regular curriculum but also focus on women's issues (girls study the lives of influential black women such as Harriet Tubman and First Lady Michelle Obama, for instance).
  • Religious studies may be part of the curriculum: Many single-sex schools are affiliated with Jewish temples and Catholic and Protestant churches, and offer courses in religious studies and theology. At the all-boys Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York, "You'll have young men playing football, but also in glee club, tutoring, on yearbook and teaching religious education after school," says school president Brother Thomas Cleary. "In a co-ed school, girls tend to take up a lot of the spots in the non-athletic clubs and activities. At Chaminade, the boys can do whatever they want." The school holds many after-school events where morality and faith are discussed, and Cleary believes the boys are more open during these sessions than they would be if girls were included.
  • Uniforms and dress codes: At many single-sex schools, students follow a casual dress code, but still wear a uniform. It can be as simple as a polo shirt or skirt of the same color. Some schools require coats and ties. School officials say the dress code works well in instances where a group is required to travel or perform at a venue far away and needs to be instantly recognizable.
  • “Dates” with other schools: Single-sex schooling doesn’t mean zero contact with the opposite sex. Some single-sex schools partner on a regional basis to share the same calendar, making co-ed events like dances and sports events possible. A holiday dance, for example, may include both girls and boys.

What to look out for in a quality single-sex school

Single-sex schools have the same goals that most schools share: to give students the skills and knowledge base they need to go on to college and to have meaningful careers. Many single-sex schools incorporate some aspect of character-building — teaching respect or emotional intelligence — into their curriculum. For boys, this may mean focusing on nonviolent ways to communicate and exploring how to be a good friend. For girls, it may mean teaching leadership and public speaking skills.

Many single-sex schools find ways to incorporate fine arts or dramatic performances as part of their academic offerings, and some have won national and international attention for their efforts. (Look out for Grammys on the hallway walls.)

These schools can often attract teachers committed to single-sex education who bring advanced degrees and college-level instruction to the school. Deans and directors at many single-sex schools are former college instructors and administrators.

What supporters say

  • Less competition between sexes: Single-sex supporters argue that competing with boys can prevent girls from learning the communication and leadership skills they need to succeed. Single-sex education gives girls the opportunity to pursue their interest in nontraditional fields such as science and math. Boys also learn to interact with their peers without being overwhelmed by girls, who often have more highly developed communication skills. Some studies have found that girls score higher on tests when they’re in a single-sex classroom, although these findings have been disputed (see below). Educators point to some research indicating that girls who attend single sex schools do better on standardized tests than those at co-ed schools. Single-sex advocates argue that this is because teachers tend to pay attention to louder, more aggressive boys, and call on girls less often as a result.
  • Rewriting gender roles and defying sexism: Gender stereotypes are part of our culture; advocates say that single-sex schools actively work to reverse these stereotypes in their curriculum and afterschool activities.
  • Adapted to differences in how girls and boys are wired: Supporters point to research showing that language skills for boys develop more slowly than for girls, giving girls an edge early in life. Single-sex education gives boys a chance to learn at their own pace.
  • Fewer distractions from academic work: Some students, especially teens, spend a good part of the school day flirting or fighting or thinking about members of the opposite sex. In fact, some single-sex schools were established to help kids from low-income urban neighborhoods where violence, high dropout rates, and teen pregnancy were rampant. Demanding curricula in single-sex schools, these supporters say, turns the focus back to education.
  • High college acceptance rates: Many of the schools emphasize college-track academics for students, including Advanced Placement courses and intermediate college courses. One Chicago public charter school for boys, Urban Prep Academies, boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate, for example.

What critics say

  • The benefits are suspect. Although supporters tout the science, some of the largest studies of single-sex schools aren’t clear about the benefits of being in an all girls or boys classroom. Some critics argue that single-sex schools attract students whose families are more involved in their education and push them academically, and this explains the positive academic outcomes demonstrated in some studies of single-sex schools. Milder critics say that while there may be benefits for girls, single-sex education is bad for boys.

    Many single-sex critics also cite major problems with studies proporting to show the benefits of single-sex education. In fact, one of the largest reviews of single-sex school studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found these studies inconclusive when it comes to the benefits of single-sex education. Even the National Association for Single Sex Public Education admits that many of the single-sex classrooms across the country share co-ed activities with the rest of the school, so differences in outcomes are hard to verify.
  • Single-sex public education is unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposes public single-sex schools and classrooms on constitutional grounds. The ACLU is concerned that the revisions to Title IX allowing single-sex education in public schools will lead to separate but unequal education. (Read more about the ACLU's position.)
  • There's faulty scientific research. Some researchers question the science that purports to show that girls learn differently than boys, and that there are major differences in the wiring of girls’ and boys' brains. According to these scientists, differences in learning outcomes for girls and boys are the result, in large part, of nurture, not nature. In an article in the journal, Science, scientists argued that single-sex education actually reinforces gender stereotypes that are harmful to both girls and boys: "There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism," the authors conclude.
  • Students who attend single-sex schools can’t relate to the other sex. One large study from the Institute of Education in London concluded that boys who attended an all-boys school were more likely to be divorced by the time they are 40. Another study contends that interaction between girls and boys leads to healthier relationships as they grow mature.

A final word of advice

Find out if the single-sex school you're considering is accredited by a regional or national organization. Still, accreditation is not always a surefire stamp of approval. Some excellent schools lack accreditation by a regional group. But membership in a national or regional organization can give a school single-sex educational resources that it might not have on its own, such as opportunities for collaborative teaching and international studies. Some schools belong to the National Coalition of Girls' Schools or the International Boys' Schools Coalition. But if they don’t, don’t be surprised. Some are so new they don’t yet have a track record.

Many single-sex schools don’t go beyond the eighth grade, an age when many children hit puberty and their curiosity in the opposite sex is heightened. If your child is no longer interested in a single-sex education, it may be a good time to transition to a co-ed high school.

Finally, visit any school you are considering for your child. Get input from other parents, teachers, and the principal. Ask questions that will give you as complete a sense of the school as possible. Make sure you feel that this is the right school for your unique child.