As someone who weathered an all-boys high school, I was always bewildered by the constant reassurances that single-sex schools are better for everyone concerned. The prevailing wisdom was that young men and women both would be less distracted by the opposite sex, and so would work harder — which completely ignores a teenager's incredible ability to be distracted at will during a statistics class.
So it's not surprising (to me, at least) that Science has just published an article stating that claims of the benefit of single sex schooling lack any empirical evidence. The authors go so far as to call these claims pseudoscience.
The researchers argue that there's no evidence of academic advantage to single sex schools, and that such claims are "deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence."
This research looked at single- and mixed-sex school in the USA, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. While students at single sex schools do tend to perform better, this is just as easily explained by other reasons — most notably, these schools tend to be more academically rigorous, and the students who attend them are strong learners already. The researchers also note that many single-sex schools will swiftly transfer out poorly-performing students, thus artificially boosting graduation and college acceptance rates.
There's also no solid evidence for young men and women having significantly different learning styles, either from an education perspective or a neurological one.
So, what do single sex schools do? Well, apparently they foster sexism and higher rates of gender stereotyping.
The reason researchers are arguing this point is that single-sex education is something that's appeared in the public school sphere recently. Pundits argue that we should offer two educational streams for each subject: single-sex and coed. In addition, teachers in these streams would be trained in "gender-specific learning styles." Given that many school districts are already strapped for cash, and there's no evidence that single-sex education improves learning, the authors ultimately find that introducing single-sex divisions in public schools is financially unsound. They call it "institutional sexism disguised as choice".
Image via the National Library of New Zealand