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K-12 Single-Sex Education: What Does the Research Say?

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

Interest in single-sex education has been reinvigorated by the educational reform movement and by skepticism about whether the coeducational environment fosters equitable treatment of boys and girls. However, the "for" or "against" stance that shapes popular literature on single-sex education is misleading because assessments of single-sex education's success or failure are contingent on (1) stakeholders' goals; (2) indicators of success used; (3) historical context; and (4) issues of selection bias, especially in the United States, where single-sex schools are overwhelmingly private. Although research on the effects of K-12 single-sex education is inconclusive in general, some common themes emerge in the research literature. This Digest reviews that research with particular attention to effects on girls' attitudes and achievement. 

Attitudinal Variables Self-Esteem

Studies of the effect of school type on girls' self-esteem suggest that the sources of self-esteem for girls may differ in single-sex and coeducational schools. Studies that have found higher self-esteem for girls in the single-sex, as compared with the mixed-sex, environment have typically used multidimensional measures composed of subcategories such as academic, athletic, and social esteem. These studies' findings suggest that levels of girls' esteem in these individual subcategories-but not their general self-concept or global self- esteem-may differ between single-sex and mixed-sex environments. 

For example, Cairns (1990) investigated self-esteem and locus of control (an individual's sense of how environment hinders or facilitates her or his goals) for students in secondary schools in Northern Ireland. He used a multidimensional measure of "self- esteem" made up of four subcategories--social, cognitive, athletic, and general--and concluded that single-sex schools are associated with benefits in self-esteem and locus of control, cautioning that his findings of higher esteem may be confined to cognitive self-concept. In another study from Northern Ireland, Granleese and Joseph (1993) deployed a domain-specific self- concept measure in their study of girls from one single-sex and one coed secondary school. Girls at the single-sex school were less critical of their own behavioral conduct than girls in the mixed school. This lack of criticism was the single best predictor of global self-worth in the all-girls' school. In the mixed-sex school, physical appearance was the single best predictor of degree of global self-worth. 

On the other hand, Brutsaert and Bracke (1994) found little effect of school type in their study of sixth-grade girls and boys in Belgian elementary schools. While girls and boys seemed unaffected by the gender organization of the school, boys were negatively affected by a preponderance of female teachers on staff, which lowered boys' overall sense of well-being. Smith's (1996) 10-year study of students' attitudes and achievement in one all-boys' and one all-girls' high school in Australia that had made the transition to coeducation found that both girls' and boys' self-concept declined initially but after 5 years increased to a level above that which was measured when the students were in single-sex classrooms. 

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