The Advantages of Single-Gender Schools

Research shows a difference in how boys and girls learn

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Students work at Ron Brown Preparatory School, which focuses on the educational needs of young African American and Latino men. “We wanted to be very intentional with what we were doing,” said Principal Ben Williams. Photo Courtesy Ron Brown/DCPS

Single-gender education, the teaching of male or female students in separate classes or schools, was common in the United States until the twentieth century. But while the separation of students by gender has grown increasingly uncommon, educators, administrators and parents in the District and across the country are taking another look at the potential benefits of single-gender education.

Many of the single-gender schools in the District are private schools established many years ago by religious institutions. Founded in 1789 and located in Bethesda, Georgetown Preparatory, which serves grades 9 to 12, is the nation’s oldest Catholic boys school. Located in Bladensburg, Maryland, Elizabeth Seton High School is a private Catholic all-girls high school established in 1959. And the Washington School for Girls (WSG), a Catholic school in Anacostia for girls in grades 3-8, was founded in 1998.

But in the last ten years or so, the concept has gained traction. The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) opened Ron Brown Preparatory College in the fall of 2016 to serve young men of color in grades 9 to 12, and North Star Preparatory, a new Public Charter School for boys in grades 4 to 8, is slated to open in the summer of 2018.

Experts argue that boys and girls simply learn differently, and that each gender absorbs information better in differing environments. WSG President Beth Reaves points out that one advantage of single-gender schools is that educators are able to better focus on and respond to behavior and learning skills that experts say are associated with each gender.

“Research shows that there is a difference in how boys and girls learn,” said Reaves. “We’re still learning so much. There’s a wide range of learning skills, and there are so many ways of segmenting children into learning groups.”

The difference between gendered learning styles among elementary school aged boys and girls of the same age can be larger than differences in age groups, says research from the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). MRI scans show that boys have more areas of the brain dedicated on spatial-mechanical strengths, and girls have better verbal and emotional processing. The hippocampus, an area of the brain dealing with language and memory, develops faster and gets larger in girls than boys. Due to higher levels of serotonin and oxytocin, girls are also better able to focus, enabling them to sit still, read and write at an earlier age whereas boys often find it difficult to sit still and paying attention. Because of this, boys often require more periods of rest between lessons and are sometimes misdiagnosed with learning or attention-deficit problems.

Studies show that certain teaching styles work best for each gender. For instance, lessons incorporating movement energize boys and help them stay focused, such as digging for earthworms during science classes. NASSPE says that it is easier to teach boys math by focusing on the properties of numbers themselves, but lessons about pure math work best for girls when tied into real-world applications of number theory, such as the way the numbers in the Fibonacci series show when you count the bracts on a pinecone.”

Educational psychologists also say that girls evaluate their work more critically than boys, often reporting low confidence despite excellent performance, meaning girls need to build their confidence together with their knowledge and abilities.

Distraction of the Sexes
Experts also say single-gender environments can remove distraction, allowing students to better focus on their instructors and the subject matter.

Reaves feels that one of the most important benefits of single-gender education is also the most obvious. “I think one of the biggest advantages is that girls, especially as they come into middle school, they don’t feel there’s the distraction that might be presented by boys.”

Shawn Hardnett agrees. In the summer of 2018 he will be opening a new all-boys public charter school, the North Star College Preparatory Academy for Boys, for boys in grades 4 through 8.

“Boys are very clearly distracted, by technology, by any number of things,” said Hardnett, who is CEO and Founder of North Star. “And they have very clearly seen girls as one of those distractions.”

“Boys need something different,” Hardnett added, “that’s what parents and students have said to us, over and over again. And so we want to take the opportunity to provide that.”

Hardnett and his team have spent time at private, parochial and public boys’ schools learning what is effective in boys-only environments. They have focused on pedagogy – or how to get students from not knowing to knowing – and the different tools that can be used to engage boys, such as humor or the use of grotesquery.

“In a single-gender environment we can play with this in a way that you couldn’t in a coeducational environment,” he said.

Hardnett added that, when separated from girls, boys are more willing to try things that are socially considered less masculine, such as arts and music, than they might be in a coeducational environment.

Many of the single-gender schools see the focus on gender as the starting point for a targeted approach to education designed to help specific groups of students succeed.

Ben Williams, Principal of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, the District’s only public single-gender school, said that single-gender education is innovative and something that has rarely been tried in public schools.

“We wanted to be very intentional,” he said, “and tailor experiences to young African-American men. It allows us to target a sub-group of students traditionally shown to struggle in our conventional high school systems.”

Administrators and educators of single-gender schools believe that they are able to better empower their students so that they can enter new environments and situations surer of themselves.

Alyssa Doherty, Enrollment and Marketing Strategist at Elizabeth Seton High School, says that her institution is uniquely able to strengthen and prepare young women for college and careers. “Our classroom settings foster and encourage self-advocacy, collaboration, and confidence,” she said. “As faculty and staff, we are always looking to be at the leading edge of learning opportunities and initiatives that enhance girls’ learning and open doors for them in traditionally underrepresented fields.”

Seton’s curriculum has expanded to include programs that offer students exposure to a variety of career fields, including a STEM program in engineering, a pre-law program and a pharmacy technician program. Each of these academic tracks offer professional mentorship and internship programs.

But Is Single-Gender the Real World?
Critics of single-sex education say that many of the successes are a result of these types of programs and extracurricular activities rather than the absence of the opposite sex. A 2011 article published in the American Psychological Association (APA) Monitor on Psychology noted research showing that gender segregation can reinforce some of society’s gender-based expectations.

Single-gender school educators disagree. “They can understand the value of learning to be solid in who you are and finding your voice at a young age. They don’t really know anything different,” said Reaves of the female students at WSG. “They’re not taking a back seat to anyone.” She emphasized that in an all-girls school, the roles of best student, best athlete, student body president and class clown are all filled by prominent students, all of them female.

Seton’s Doherty agreed. “Our faculty and staff believe in the mission and recognize that nurturing and encouragement go a long way to helping girls achieve their goals.”

“Our leadership roles are all filled by girls, the athletic facilities are intended for our girls, and our classroom lessons are all geared towards the learning styles of young women in today’s world.”

Another criticism of single-gender schools is that they do not prepare students for the reality of a workplace in which men and women are expected to work together side by side.

Educators acknowledge this concern, but say that interactions at school are not as important to the development of student understanding of gender roles as interactions in other contexts, such as at home or in the community.

“School is just a snapshot of their day,” said Reaves of her students. “These girls are involved in activities, go home to their families and interact in a world that is co-ed. A lot of our girls go on to co-ed high schools, and they say that they feel grateful that they had a good opportunity to build their confidence.”

Reaves added that girls who go on from the 130-student WSG campus to coeducational high schools feel the size of the school is often a bigger adjustment than the social, coeducational aspects.

Hardnett agrees. “There is no research to suggest that school is where boys learn about gender roles,” he said. “But we know from observation and experience that boys in single-gender environments have opportunities to discuss relationships in a healthier way.”

Administrators of single-gender school teachers acknowledge the wide variety of quality choices available to parents in the District, and encourage parents to look at all their options when considering a single-gender school.

Ultimately, it is up to the parent to investigate the options available for their child and determine if a single-gender school is right for them.

“Parents know their own child or children best, so taking a close look at the child and her particular style of learning is the first step to making that decision,” said Dougherty. “Given the particular learning style, decide what school purports to have a learning environment that supports that style.”