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Middle School Boys and Girls Discuss Single-Sex Education

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

In recent years single-sex classes have grown in popularity, as educators and parents seek to address declines in achievement, especially in the volatile middle school grades. Potential benefits include a distraction-free learning environment and teachers prepared to meet the different educational needs of boys and girls. Much has been written about these classes, but very little research has asked the students themselves about how they feel about this school reform. Youngsters, especially young adolescents, can be remarkably candid about what happens to them in the name of education. Their perspectives are valuable to our understanding of how single-sex schools can best meet their needs.

Listening to the Students

I interviewed 40 students, both boys and girls, in grades 6 through 8 in a small urban middle school in the northeastern United States. In this school, parents and students could choose single-sex academic-core classes on a yearly basis. These interviews took place each year over a 3-year period, as part of a larger study that included interviews with teachers and parents, surveys of students, teachers, and parents, and analysis of the standardized test scores over that period. Although the student interviews are interesting in themselves, it is potentially dangerous to generalize from any single interview. However, in this study, the students' words reflect the survey responses that came from the students as a group. Therefore, the trends in these interviews capture the essence of what the students in general said about their single-sex classes.

Some students reported that they feel more challenged and successful in single-sex classes.

"All-boy classes are fun!" said Jimmy, age 11 and in the sixth grade, cheerfully."Teachers don't scold us so much when we do 'boy things' when the girls aren't around." He explained that "boy things" include being loud and making noise. Jimmy also declared that he felt "more challenged" in his all-boy classes and enjoyed the competition, "I want to try to beat them. I didn't try to beat the girls (when he was in mixed classes) because I didn't think I could beat the top girls, so why bother?" Alison, also age 11 and in the sixth grade, said she "loves allgirls classes", especially math classes because she's "good at math and won a stuffed animal in a math contest." She reported that she participates more in all-girl classes because she can concentrate more.

Girls were more likely to express a feeling of emotional safety in single-sex classes.

Becky, another sixth grade girl, age 12, expressed concerns about emotional and intellectual safety. She noted that when she was in a coed class, "the boys picked on me because I am smarter than them." She said that her teachers in her all-girls class "word things better and say them differently. In coed classes they say things more simply for the boys." She felt that girls have the same ideas and can work well together, because the boys think of "disgusting things", especially in science. She added that all-girl classes are more fun and get more accomplished, even though the girls "get loud and ask too many questions." Nancy, age 12 and in seventh grade, reinforced the emotional safety of single-sex classes. She reported that she thought all-girl classes would be "cool" because "you wouldn't nervous to ask a question and be wrong - and then the boys might laugh at you." She also reported a significant increase in her grades. "We get higher grades because we pay attention more and don't get distracted." She planned to stay in all-girl classes in eighth grade because she couldn't think of any reason to change.

Some boys reported that aggression was a problem in single-sex classes.

Danny, age 13 and in the seventh grade, explained that he could talk more about sports with his friends and "just hang out", but that in his all-boy class, "Boys try to act tougher." Jared, also age 13, and in the eighth grade, felt that the school had organized all-boy classes "because of fights and stuff." Although he had been picked on by other boys when he was in seventh grade, he felt that it was worse in the all-boy classes. He explained, "The guys who pick on us would be more interested in impressing the girls" in coeducational classes. He added that his friends were mostly girls and that he missed them. Sam, also age 13, agreed that while he had witnessed bullying in coeducational classes, he also believed that more bullying occurred in the all-boy environment. However, he personally enjoyed the all-boy classes because "I can concentrate more. The girls make too much noise." He suggested that single-sex classes should be a choice for individual subjects and not all the academic classes, as had been organized by the school.

Satisfaction seemed to vary with the age and gender of the student.

Heather, age 13, complained that she was in an all-girl class because "My mom decided to torture me." She went along with her mother's decision because she was curious. She conceded that all-girl classes made it easier to relate to her girlfriends and to "help each other with guy problems." She further captured the essence of another aspect of the seventh grade all-girl social environment when she said, "In some ways it's really nice to be with your friends, but sometimes the girls get really catty, and it is hard to get space away from them." Her observations clearly indicated her growing interest and relative pre-occupation with adolescent social interaction.

Jimmy, who had commented about having fun in sixth grade, noted after some reflection that, "I will probably want to be with girls when I am in high school." Two years after this first interview, Jimmy once more shared his insights when asked why he had chosen all-boy classes for all of his middle-school years. Now a tall, lanky athlete, he said that "all-boy classes worked for me. I can see girls any time I want." He added that he looking forward to coeducational classes, since his high school did not offer single-sex classes.

Drawing Some Conclusions

Several key conclusions emerged from these interviews:

  • Student responses varied by gender and age. Single-sex classes seemed to be most effective when related to the developmental needs of the students. My research suggested that the younger the student, the more likely that being in a single-sex class can be a positive experience. Since the older adolescents introduced to single-sex classes for the first time were more resistant to them, it may be beneficial to initiate the option at an earlier age. Moreover, schools must be vigilant about adolescent aggression and bullying that might occur in any middle school environment.
  • Equally important is teacher preparation in the differences in the ways boys and girls learn. The students were very aware of the how their teachers responded to them in their single-sex classes.
  • In a public school environment, single-sex classes are a viable choice for parents and students, especially in middle school when students are beginning to assert their independence.
About the Author

Frances R. Spielhagen, Ph.D. is a career educator with over 40 years experience as a classroom teacher and currently as a teacher-educator at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. She is the author/editor of Debating Single Sex Education: Separate and Equal, which contains full account of this study, and several other studies. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, www.rowmaneducation.com ISBN: 978-1-57886-738-7). She also conducts professional development workshops for classroom teachers and has written articles for several educational journals, inclulding Educational Leadership, Education Week, and Education News. She welcomes email correspondence and can be reached at spielhag@msmc.edu.

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