Issues Magazine

Unisex Education Unlikely to Offer Advantage Over Co-ed Schools


American Psychological Association

Single-sex education does not educate girls and boys any better than co-ed schools, according to research published by the American Psychological Association analysing 184 studies of more than 1.6 million students from around the world. The findings were published in the Psychological Bulletin.

“Proponents of single-sex schools argue that separating boys and girls increases students’ achievement and academic interest,” said author Janet Shibley Hyde of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Our comprehensive analysis of the data shows that these advantages are trivial and, in many cases, non-existent.”

A separate analysis of just US schools had similar findings. Researchers also looked at studies that examined co-ed schools that offered single-sex instruction in certain subjects and found no significant benefits for boys or girls in these cases.

Some studies showed modest benefits for both boys and girls in maths performance in single-sex schools, but not for science performance. However, these advantages in maths were not evident in studies with more rigorous research methods.

The analysis included studies of K–12 schools published from 1968 to 2013. Among the studies, 57 used stronger research methods, such as studies in Trinidad and Tobago and Korea that randomly assigned thousands of students to single-sex or co-ed schools and tracked their outcomes. Other examples of more rigorous studies controlled for pre-existing differences between students, such as testing students before and after they enrolled in either a single-sex or co-ed institution.

The total sample included 1,663,662 participants in 21 countries. The studies examined students’ performance and attitudes in maths and science; verbal skills; and attitudes about school, gender stereotyping, aggression, victimisation and body image. They did not find sufficient evidence to show any difference in these attitudes between boys and girls in single-sex or co-ed classrooms.

Theories that single-sex education may be better for students have included the idea that without boys in the classroom, girls would be able to thrive in traditionally male-dominated subjects, such as maths and science. “The theoretical approach termed ‘girl power’ argues that girls lag behind boys in some subjects in co-ed classrooms,” said co-author Erin Pahlke of Whitman College in Washington. “This is not supported by our analysis and, moreover, girls’ educational aspirations were not higher in single-sex schools.”