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Controversy and Debate Surround the Implementation of Single-Gender Education

By — Gender Differences Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

The controversy and debate surrounding public school single gender education as a means to increase student achievement has just begun.  Since the October 2006 relaxation of laws governing public school single gender education, researchers and educational theorists assert that single gender education will provide a plethora of benefits.  In addition to increased academic achievement, other benefits such as a decrease in discipline referrals, an increase in attendance, an increase in self-esteem, an increase in traditionally gender specific course selection across genders, and an increase in career aspirations have been investigated (Mael, Smith, Alonso, Rogers & Gibson, 2004; Riordan, Faddis, Beam, Seager, Tanney & DiBiase, 2008).

Administrators, curriculum directors and teachers have a long history of jumping on the school reform bandwagon with reckless abandon in an enthusiastic effort to appease policy makers and legislators.  School reform pieces with any remote chance of producing even mild to moderate success are embraced as educators scramble to fix the United States educational system and increase student achievement.

Barely a year has passed since President Bush signed legislation that made public school single gender education possible—and legal.  However, all over the country schools are implementing single gender programs without quality empirical research and without appropriate professional development for implementation.  For instance, consider the Single-Gender Pilot Initiative in California which was undertaken without any teacher preparation for single-gender instruction. It was not surprising that the program was deemed unsuccessful and thus abandoned a short time later. The lack of quality single-gender implementation has been cited as a probable variable in the failure of the initiative (Datnow, Hubbard & Woody, 2001; Herr & Arms, 2004).

Another example of at least, attempted single gender implementation without adequate planning, training or legal council is the case of Greene County in Georgia. The Greene County District undertook an attempt to convert the entire school district to a single gender format—clearly against the law. This action violates one of the three provisions of Title IX that makes single gender education legal (NASSPE, 2007). Namely, if single gender is implemented, a coeducational option must also be available at a “geographically accessible” location.

I too am of the opinion that single gender schooling is a viable strategy for increasing student achievement.  I base that opinion on personal experience, having been educated in a single gender environment, and on the review of research from the religious, international and private sector.  However, opinion, anecdotal research and quantitative research based on dissimilar populations do not provide sufficient cause to once again jump on the bandwagon.

More qualitative and quantitative research is needed, but in order to make a determination of the effectiveness of single gender education in the United States, public school populations must be used in the research effort (Riordan, Faddis, Beam, Seager, Tanney & DiBiase, 2008).  First, let’s fully investigate single gender schooling in the public sector.  Second, if findings support the concept, provide professional development and then, and only then, implement.

Recently, in search of a school in which to conduct my doctoral dissertation study on the impact of single gender schooling on student achievement, I visited 4 different elementary and middle schools.  I was impressed, surprised, encouraged, but also, astonished beyond belief that the “testing” of this potential reform tool was sometimes in the hands of horrifically incompetent teachers.  

One teacher in particular, I’ll call her “the whistle blower”, had no control of the class for my entire visit.  I observed in her classroom for no more than 10 minutes and during that 10 minute period the whistle sounded 11 times as the teacher attempted to gain control, but to no avail.  Students weren’t listening, but were talking, making loud noises and otherwise off task.  I began to feel bad for the few students who were well behaved and seemingly interested in learning. 

If the perceived success of single gender schooling hinges upon the test scores of the students in the class that I observed, the concept will simply be abandoned without a fair shake.  Let’s give single gender schooling a fighting chance by testing the concept in a sound educational environment before discarding it or embarking upon a state or national campaign for implementation.

Fortunately, I have found a suitable location for my dissertation study—a school with an administration has researched single gender schooling, sought expert counsel and advice and provided appropriate professional development for the teachers involved.  Whether the results of my study yield evidence in support of single gender education or not, the testing arena will at least have been optimal.
References

Arms, E. & Herr, K. Accountability and single-sex schooling: A collision of reform agendas. American Educational Research Journal. 41(3), 527-55.

Datnow, A., Hubbard L. & Woody, E. (2001). Is single gender schooling viable in the public sector? Lessons from California’s pilot program. Toronto, Ont.: Institute    for Studies in Education.
 
Mael, F., Alonso, A., Gibson, G., Rogers, K., & Smith, M. (2005). Single-sex versus coeducational schooling: A systematic review. United States Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. Department of Education.      
 
National Association for Single-sex Public Education (2007). National Association for Single-sex Public Education. http://www.singlesexeschools.org/home-introduction.html
 
Riordan, C., Faddis, B., Bean, M., Seager, A., Tanney, A., & DiBiase, R. (2008). Early implementation of public single-sex schools: perceptions and characteristics.  United States Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. Department of Education.
 
Katherine Bradley, M.ED., ED., is working on a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership. Her dissertation focuses on single gender education and its impact on academic achievement, discipline referral rates and attendance for first and second graders.
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