Single-sex education (teaching boys and girls in separate classrooms or schools) is an old approach regaining momentum. While single-sex education has long existed in many private schools, it’s a relatively new option for public schools. Only 34 single-sex schools were operating in 2004, but by 2017 U.S. Department of Education data estimated more than 1,000 single-gender public schools. Forty-five percent are all boys, 55 percent are all girls, and 83 percent are overwhelmingly Black and Latino.

Since 2006, federal law has supported the option of single-sex education. when Education Secretary Margaret Spellings eased federal regulations, allowing schools to offer single-sex classrooms and schools, as long as such options are completely voluntary. This move has given parents and school districts greater flexibility, but the research on its value remains a matter of debate.

Nature vs. nurture

Before weighing the pros and cons of single-sex education, consider the influences of “nature versus nurture.” Many factors affect each child’s learning profile and preferences:

  • Some factors relate to the child’s nature, such as gender, temperament, abilities (and disabilities), and intelligence.
  • Other influences stem from the way parents and society nurture the child: Family upbringing, socioeconomic status, culture, and stereotypes all fall under the “nurture” category.

Advocates of single-sex education argue for the value of separating children from a number of different angles. The most prominent advocate is psychologist and physician Leonard Sax, whose books <Why Gender Matters (2005), Boys Adrift (2007), and Girls on the Edge (2010), argue that boys and girls are inherently different and need different educational experiences. Others have argued that the success of women’s colleges point to a value in female-only education, where the chroniclers of the boys growing academic struggles compared to their female peers suggest that boys need girl-free education to fight the stereotype that boys can’t read.

Critics point to a lack of evidence for such claims, summarized by a 2008 New York Times article, which explained that “many academics and progressives tend to find Sax’s views stereotyped and infuriating.” They point out that studies on the impact of single-sex education on learning often do not account for the fact that most single-sex schools are selective or draw from a different population than coeducational public schools. Former president of the American Psychological Association, Diane F. Halpern co-published “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling” with other scholars, lambasting sex-segregated education as “deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherrypicked, or misconstrued scientific claims.” The subject even inspired a New York Times debate where researchers and pundits squared off about the benefits and bluster of single-sex learning.

So, who’s right? Below are arguments both for and against single-sex education.

Making the case for single-sex education

Those who advocate for single-sex education in public schools argue that:

  • Some parents don’t want their children to be in mixed-gender classrooms because, especially at certain ages, students of the opposite sex can be a distraction.
  • A 2019 study from the University of Southern California indicates girls learn better when the classroom temperature is warm, while boys perform better in cooler classrooms. If that’s true, then the temperature in a single-sex classroom could be set to optimize the learning of either male or female students.
  • Evidence suggests single-sex education can broaden the educational prospects for both girls and boys. A 2017 study examining students in Seoul, Korea, concluded, “male high school seniors attending all-boys schools show higher levels of science interests…than their counterparts attending coeducational schools.”
  • A 2015 study out of Switzerland also reports, “[F]emale students in all-female classes experience less stereotype threat and perform better in their mathematics grades than their female peers in coeducational classes.”
  • Advocates claim co-ed schools reinforce gender stereotypes, while single-sex schools can break down gender stereotypes. Girls are free of the pressure to compete with boys in male-dominated subjects such as math and science, while boys can more easily pursue traditionally “feminine” interests such as music and poetry.
  • Some research offers evidence in favor of co-ed education for boys but single-sex for girls. A 2011 study by Victor Lavy and Analia Schlosser titled “Mechanisms and Impacts of Gender Peer Effects at School” determined “an increase in the proportion of girls impose boys and girls’ cognitive outcomes” in elementary schools, caused by “lower levels of classroom disruption and violence, improved inter-student and student-teacher relations, and lessened teacher fatigue.”

What critics say about single-sex education

Those who claim single-sex education is ineffective and/or undesirable make the following claims:

  • The impact on learning isn’t conclusive. For instance, in one of the few studies that controlled for a host of parental, individual and school level factors, researchers analyzing Irish schools (where about one third of the students attend gender segregated schools) found no “significant difference in performance for girls or boys who attend single-sex schools compared to their mixed-school peers in science, mathematics or reading.”
  • Few educators are formally trained to use gender-specific teaching techniques. However, it’s no secret that experienced teachers usually understand gender differences and are adept at accommodating a variety of learning styles within their mixed-gender classrooms.
  • Gender differences in learning aren’t the same across the board; they vary along a continuum of what is considered normal. For a sensitive boy or an assertive girl, the teaching style promoted by advocates of single-sex education could be ineffective (at best) or detrimental (at worst).
  • It doesn’t teach genders to work together. Students in single-sex classrooms will one day live and work side-by-side with members of the opposite sex. Educating students in single-sex schools limits their opportunity to work cooperatively and co-exist successfully with members of the opposite sex.
  • It perpetuates gender stereotyping. For instance, the ACLU opposes single-sex schools, claiming they are based on “junk science” to perpetuate “disturbing gender stereotypes” and are a “waste of time” that divert attention from more valuable reforms, such as reducing class size and increasing teacher training. Or as Diane F. Halpern’s put it in “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling” “…sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.”

Measuring public perception

How does the public view single-sex education? The “average” adult has a different opinion than the graduates of these schools.

In a 2022 poll by YouGov only 25% of adult men surveyed thought all-boys schools were “better” than co-ed schools, with the same percentage viewing them as “worse.” Adult women were less enthusiastic – only 17% thought all-boy schools were superior, with 21% regarding them as worse. Public opinion of all-girls schools was a bit more generous: 25% of men thought they were better for girls than coed schools, and 22% said they were worse, while 20% of women viewed all-girls schools as better than coeds, with 19% claiming they were worse.

People who actually attended single-sex schools were far more supportive. Men who attended all-boys schools were 45 percent positive, claiming it was better than coed, with 29 percent saying they were worse. Women who attended all-girls schools were 41 percent positive, and 26 percent negative.

Many (often most) people answered the survey question with “not sure” or “no difference.” Their uncertainty mirrors the overall ambiguity of the co-ed vs. single-sex school question. As is true of many educational questions, the answer for any given family often depends on context. For instance, is the school operating in a culture where a single-sex education might offer students a respite from gender discrimination? Is the school (coeducational or single-sex) reinforcing gender stereotypes or working against them? Why might the family want single-sex education for their child? Is it intended to empower the child to succeed and learn or keep them narrowly focused on acceptable gender roles?