Gender Segregation: Separate But Effective?

Last October, more than 450 public school teachers, principals and central administrators from across the United States — as well as from Argentina, Bermuda, Canada and Poland — came together in Atlanta, Georgia, for the fifth annual convention of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

Dozens of presentations extolled the superiority of gender-segregated classrooms and entire schools, with lecture titles such as, “Burps, Farts and Snot: Teaching Chemistry To Middle School Boys,” and “Just Don’t Say ‘SEX’ — tips on how to implement single-gender programs in conservative, rural communities.”

Attendees ranged from Chicago and Philadelphia inner-city high school teachers to elementary school principals from small towns in Idaho and Indiana. They represented a fraction of recent converts to the Single Sex Public Education (SSPE) movement, which has expanded at a remarkable pace.

In 2002, only 11 public schools in the United States had gender-segregated classrooms. As of December 2009, there were more than 550.

The movement is based on the hypothesis that hard-wired differences in the ways that male and female brains develop and function in childhood through adolescence require classrooms in which boys and girls are not only separated by gender, but also taught according to radically different methods.

For example, SSPE doctrine calls for teachers in male classrooms to be constantly moving and speaking in a loud voice, even to the point of shouting, while teachers in female classes should be still and use a calming tone. This differentiation stems from the central tenet of SSPE ideology that young males thrive on competition and confrontation, while young females require a more nurturing and cooperative learning environment.

“When most young boys are exposed to threat and confrontation, their senses sharpen, and they feel a thrill,” explains Dr. Leonard Sax, the founder and executive director of the National Associate for Single Sex Public Education. “When most young girls are exposed to such stimuli, however, they feel dizzy and yucky.”

In a landmark essay published in the Spring 2006 edition of Educational Horizons, just as the SSPE movement was gaining strong momentum, Dr. Sax detailed the different ways elementary school teachers should address their students in gender-segregated classes. “[The teacher] may move right in front of a boy and say, ‘What’s your answer, Mr. Jackson? Give it to me!’ Far from being intimidated, boys are energized by this teaching style. With girls [teachers should] speak more softly, use first names, terms of endearment and fewer direct commands: ‘Lisa, sweetie, it’s time to open your book. Emily, darling, would you please sit down for me and join us in this exercise?’”

The title of Dr. Sax’s essay was “Six Degrees of Separation,” a reference to the SSPE guideline that while the perfect ambient temperature for a male classroom is 69 degrees Fahrenheit, females learn most effectively at 75 degrees.

Heroic Behavior vs. Wedding Cakes
Separating boys and girls is a longstanding tradition at private and parochial schools. The concept began to gain traction in American public schools earlier this decade as schools began to experiment with SSPE in oft-desperate attempts to reduce disciplinary problems and improve test scores. The Department of Education accelerated the trend in 2006 by altering the Title IX provision of the No Child Left Behind Act to ease restrictions on gender-segregated education in public schools.

Since then, advocates like Dr. Sax, a child psychologist who never set foot in a classroom as a teacher, have stepped up their promotion of SSPE as a panacea for public education. With scant evidence backing them up, they herald SSPE as the most effective way to narrow the achievement gaps between rich and poor students and black and white students that persist eight years after the passage of No Child Left Behind.

Although SSPE programs are now in place at schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia, they are particularly popular in urban districts with large minority populations, and most concentrated in the Southeastern U.S. South Carolina has 173 SSPE schools, by far the most of any state.

Last year, the largest school system in Alabama, the Mobile County Public School System, with 66,000 students, implemented SSPE programs in eight of its 93 schools with no parental notification. The most extreme program was at Hankins Middle School in Theodore, Alabama, where boys and girls ate lunch at different times and were prohibited from speaking to one another on school grounds.

Hankins teachers were directed to create “competitive, high-energy” classrooms for boys and “cooperative, quiet” classrooms for girls. Boys were to be taught “heroic behavior.” Girls were to learn “good character.” Sixth-grade language arts exercises called for boys to brainstorm action words used in sports. Girls were instructed to describe their dream wedding cake. Electives were gender-specific. Boys took computer applications. Girls took drama. No exceptions.

Mark Jones, whose son Jacob attends Hankins, said that when he complained to the principal about the changes, she told him they were necessary because “boys’ and girls’ brains were so different they needed different curriculum.”

“Segregating boys and girls didn’t make things any better for our children. In fact they made things worse,” Jones said. “Our kids were basically being taught ideas about gender that come from the Dark Ages.”

Another parent, Terry Stevens, also objected. “The real world is integrated, and it’s important to both me and my son that he learn in a coed environment,” Stevens said.

Other parents and students disagreed. “You learn more like this,” 11-year-old Brenda Orduna told the Mobile Press-Register after making the honor roll at the end of the first quarter for the first time in her academic career. “When boys are around, you’re shy. And you won’t ask questions if you don’t get it.”

Muddled Results
The Mobile County SSPE experiment was short-lived. The district terminated all eight of its SSPE programs last March after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to file a lawsuit on behalf of Jones and Stevens. The ACLU took the position that the Hankins program violated even the slackened Title IX provision. (The other seven Mobile County SSPE programs either offered all elective courses to both genders, in single-sex classrooms, or made their SSPE programs optional, with co-ed alternatives. At Hankins, they were mandatory.)

“While schools might think that sex-segregated classes will be a quick fix for failing schools, in reality they are inherently unequal and shortchange both boys and girls,” said Emily Martin, Deputy Director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Program. “There is no reliable evidence that segregating students by sex improves learning by either sex.“

It is fair to say the supposed benefits of gender-segregated education in public schools claimed by SSPE supporters are unproven. On the other hand, there is no solid evidence that SSPE is harmful to the learning process of either gender, as critics argue. SSPE is such a relatively new phenomenon that no major credible studies have been conducted of its long-term efficacy. Likewise, research into gender-segregated education in general, let alone the controversial teaching methods promoted by the SSPE movement, has been inconclusive.

A 2006 study completed at the College of Education at Arizona State University showed that most of the research into gender-segregated education thus far has been of questionable value. According to the ASU study, the “research … is mostly flawed by failure to control for important variables such as class, financial status, selective admissions, religious values, prior learning or ethnicity.” The ASU study also found that the methodology of less than 2 percent of the more than 2,000 quantitative studies of gender-segregated education was of high enough quality to meet the standards of the National Center for Education Statistics.

In 2005 the Department of Education released a comprehensive meta-analysis of gender-segregated education scholarship, titled “Single Sex Versus Coeducational Schooling: A Systematic Review.” The DOE found the results “equivocal.”

“There is some support for the premise that single-sex schooling can be helpful especially for certain outcomes related to academic achievement and more positive academic aspirations,” the DOE reported. “For many outcomes, there is no evidence of either benefit or harm. There is limited support for the view that single-sex schooling may be harmful.”

The DOE report included the caveat that most research into gender-segregated education has been conducted in private Catholic schools, which hardly makes for an apples-to-apples comparison to public education.

“Sex segregation doesn’t make public schools more like private schools,” says Allison Neal, staff attorney with the ACLU of Alabama. “If some private schools provide a better education, it’s because of their resources, not because they’re single sex.”

‘A Self-Confidence Thing’
Dr. Sax counters the mixed results of the Department of Education analysis by pointing out that most of the studies reviewed by the DOE involved merely segregating boys and girls in different classrooms without deploying SSPE teaching methods.

“The most obvious explanation for the variation is that merely placing girls and boys in separate classrooms accomplishes little,” he said. “For the single-sex format to lead to improvements in academic performance, teachers must understand the hard-wired differences in how girls and boys learn and incorporate the best practices for all-female classrooms and all-male classrooms.”

Dr. Sax has made a cottage industry of training public school teachers in those classroom practices. He maintains that two days of training, 14 hours total, is all that’s needed to prepare the staff of a public school to switch from coeducation to SSPE. Since 2002, Dr. Sax by his own count has led such two-day conversion seminars for more than 300 schools in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

One of them was Carman Trails, an elementary school in the Parkway School District, which is in the St. Louis area. Despite a lack of test data to prove the program is working, SSPE at Carman Trails has won over teachers, parents and students. The program is expanding. When it began two years ago, it was limited to first grade. For the 2008-2009 academic year, first- and second-graders were segregated by gender. In February 2009, at the urging of enthusiastic parents, principal Chris Raeker grew the program to include the third grade.

Raeker said that since implementing the SSPE program, fewer boys are being sent to the principal’s office, their overall attendance is up and they are participating in school clubs in higher numbers. First-grade teacher Alicia Wall said the program is benefiting girls in different ways. “I definitely see a self-confidence thing,” Wall said. “The girls are ready to learn and ready to work. In coed classes, they’re afraid to say something. They’re afraid to be wrong.”

The anecdotal success stories from schools like Carman Trails fail to sway opponents of SSPE, which include members of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Women. They argue that SSPE is not a silver bullet for improving performance in public schools. Further, they point out that segregating students by race based on supposed differences in brain function between, for example, Asian students and African American students, would be decried as racist and arouse widespread protests.

“School districts across the country are experimenting with sex-segregated programs, which rely on questionable brain science theories based on outdated gender stereotypes,” said the ACLU’s Martin. “Instead, these districts should focus on efforts that we know can improve all students’ education, like smaller classes and more teacher training and parental involvement.”


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Segregation again?

Submitted by Anonymous on 29 January 2015 - 10:13am.

We need to shut out segregation. Remember when we segregated blacks? No matter what form it takes or how much people support it being fine, segregation should not happen. We need to stop it.

I NEVER felt this way. I am a

Submitted by Anonymous on 22 January 2015 - 10:17am.

I NEVER felt this way. I am a female who went to public school. I guess this means that I am really a male. Must explain my competitive nature and my inability to be a week and simpering female. This is outrageous.

Thanks for the article.

Submitted by Anonymous on 25 December 2014 - 7:30am.

Thanks for the article.

How can you say results are muddled?

Submitted by Anonymous on 27 August 2014 - 7:20pm.

How can you say results are muddled when in true random studies in Seoul Korea show pretty definitive results:

boys in coed classes: 37% scored proficient
girls in coed classes: 59% scored proficient
girls in single-sex classes: 75% scored proficient
boys in single-sex classes: 86% scored proficient.

NO GENDER SEGREGATION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Submitted by Anonymous on 30 May 2014 - 11:00am.


No support for this claim

Submitted by Anonymous on 27 August 2014 - 7:22pm.

There are many, many gender segregated schools around the world and in the U.S. and this isn't an issue for any of them.

not supporting this claim

Submitted by Anonymous on 8 January 2015 - 9:16am.

Many don't say anything because they don't want to bother other people. just because they don't say anything doesn't mean they don't think it.


Submitted by Anonymous on 15 May 2014 - 9:56am.

I am a student in Middle School and I get Mostly A's with loads of girls in my class. This makes no difference with academics, and I don't care what science says.

i think the same

Submitted by Anonymous on 21 January 2015 - 3:15pm.

this is what i think

Oh god no.

Submitted by Anonymous on 4 April 2014 - 2:08pm.

Hi, I'm a guy. If teachers at my school constantly ran around the room in a "highly energetic" manner or shouted at me to raise my "energy level" or whatever, I think I would have jumped out the window. I did just fine in school the way it was, thank you.

Different kids learn differently, so by all means, experiment with programs that teach in different ways. But for god's sake, don't segregate them by gender. Not all boys are the same. Not all girls are the same. You're trying to make kids freer to be themselves, but you're really just forcing them into another straight-jacket.

I can just see it now... "What's wrong, Johnny? All the other boys love it when the teacher shouts and moves around the classroom all the time! You say it distracts you? And you'd prefer a calmer environment? What are you, some kind of girl? Clearly, something's wrong with you! You better shape up, young man..."

Segregation, didn't we learn our lesson?

Submitted by Anonymous on 29 January 2015 - 10:10am.

Remember back when we segregated blacks from whites. Lots of people did it and lots of people supported it, but it still wasn't right. I don't want humanity to repeat the cycle! We need to shut out all this segregation. These people pretend it's fine and make excuses, but segregation is still wrong and we need to stop it.

It have been stated that boys

Submitted by Tali on 21 September 2012 - 1:32am.

It have been stated that boys and girls brain is hard wired differently. Can the distraction between the two genders be included according to their brain function? If this is so, then I say continue with the gender class separation. We need more documentation in support of the gender-separated schools. Anyway necessary for our students to learn better, whether the environment needs to be changed,or through the curriculum. We as parents, facilitators, and community activists most continue to find ways to assist our future. Nonstop.

Do stop.

Submitted by Anonymous on 15 October 2013 - 9:43am.

Generally yes it is good to find ways to assist our future but hard-wiring the kids of the future and turning them into robots who must follow standards and orders is not the way to do it. Kids need interaction with other gender and personalities and to figure out who they truly are not be forced and pressured into being what they truly aren't because its what society accepts and if they don't follow these rules then they're outcasts. All of this being said, it is good to want progress and to have a better future but it is also good to treat someones life like its important and not something you can just change and control on a dime, especially when it isn't good for humanity just for learning somewhat quicker.

Should race be segregated also?

Submitted by Anonymous on 20 July 2013 - 5:22pm.

Just because two people learn differently does not mean that they should be segregated. Even among boys or girls there are different learning styles. Should we start labeling children and filing them into classrooms with the 'proper' teaching technique? Will this continue to create an us vs them mentality? It has been researched that children of different socio-economic background and varying cultures learn differently also. Should we start segregating cultures based on their learning style? Like the article stated this would be considered highly racist. This again creates an us vs them mentality. We need to not only create a better school system but also one that fosters acceptance and understanding. Will exclusion or segregation help foster acceptance and understanding?

Why would it create an us vs them?

Submitted by Anonymous on 27 August 2014 - 7:24pm.

If the schools taught the same curriculum, why would it create an us vs them mentality.

Private Schools that already segregate the sexes don't have this problem.

And the jump to race is absolutely ridiculous given there is no correlation at all due to race in this.

Race is not gender

Submitted by Anonymous on 3 August 2013 - 10:26am.

The color of someone has nothing to do with the way their brain works. There are differences between the female and male brain but there no difference between people because of their skin color. I think gender segregated classes help take away distractions and build self-confidence.

race is not gender :)

Submitted by Anonymous on 21 July 2014 - 3:03pm.

I strongly support your speech :)

Finally Someone Point This Out

Submitted by Anonymous on 21 September 2013 - 3:44am.

I'm so tired of race being intermingled with gender. Race and gender are absolutely not the same thing. Thank you so much for pointing this out.

Times are different

Submitted by Anonymous on 12 February 2014 - 11:16pm.

Lets not forget that in the 1900's society believed there were biological differences between black peoples' brains and white peoples' brains. Who's to say in 100 years we won't look back on this time period and see it as completely ridiculous?

I believe that we should have

Submitted by Lisa McNeil on 5 October 2012 - 1:40pm.

I believe that we should have both gender separated schools and co-ed. This way parents and children can choose which is best.

Gender separation can be

Submitted by Ana Steuart on 5 July 2012 - 3:03pm.

Gender separation can be helpful for students because it reduces distractions and gender competition.

That being said, all students need to have access to exactly the same curriculum and treated in exactly the same ways. Boys in computer lessons and girls in drama!? What is this, 1890!?

You are correct about the

Submitted by Daniel Wakefield on 31 July 2012 - 3:29pm.

You are correct about the reduction in distractions, however, you are incorrect about them being treated in exactly the same ways. The same curriculum yes but because of the differences in boys and girls you cannot treat them the same way. If you do you might as well keep them in the same class.

I think segergation of sex in

Submitted by Samuel Perdue on 25 May 2012 - 4:07pm.

I think segergation of sex in the classroom should be illegal I don't understand why you want to separate male and female because personally I get along with the gals better than guys and I get good grades when I don't have distractions putting males in the same room will be way to distracting because of maturity level but if you keep mature gals in the class room it matures males and thus gives better grades but if you put a but load of immature boys together they will keep them immature.

I must agree with this.

Submitted by Anonymous on 14 March 2014 - 4:55pm.

I must agree with this. Immature stays immature. And I'm a boy! Look, a good influence on an immature boy can help him socially, knowing all the boys from my old school, you could not keep them down for more than 10 minutes before some kind of, well, distraction. But when we put incredibly mature/serious girls in the room, before the year ends, the boys would be ship-shape. When I work with girls, we can get along. Unfortunately, when I work with boys, all they want to do is goof off. I'm not going to lie, but it makes me want to goof of too. See what I mean?

You may get along better with

Submitted by Daniel Wakefield on 31 July 2012 - 3:31pm.

You may get along better with the girls than with the boys but most boys only seem immature because they are trying, with the limited knowledge they have received, to impress the girls. When you remove the boys from the girls and teach them according to their learning styles you will find that the 'immature boys' are really smarter than they act.

Actually, I disagree.

Submitted by Anonymous on 17 March 2014 - 4:56pm.

Actually, I disagree. Immature boys are NOT trying to impress the girls. Personally, I think that most girls prefer mature boys that know what they are doing and saying. Also, Computer applications are not my thing. It's all assumptions. Send me your email and I can send my persuasive documentary on why single gender schools are bad.

I agree with you!

Submitted by Anonymous on 21 March 2014 - 4:06pm.

I do see things the same way you do! Does anyone understand it? He's right. Boys are not trying impress girls, and girls really hate boys who cuss, shout, annoy, or bully. They want mature, serious boys who really behave. I don't understand why those boys are so immature. Look, I'm having a bad time remembering what I was going to say, but I do remember that when I wrote the "I agree with this" comment, I mentioned what happens when immature boys are put together. They only want to goof off. They seem to see girls as nothing more than show-offs. The girls are actually trying to do their best to get the teacher's attention. Boys try to get the teacher's attention in a negative way. They need to learn, from girls. Girls are usually mature earlier than boys, and can turn an immature boy, one who likes to goof off more than anything, into a serious, mature, smart, and sensible teenager. This is what we need over all. Boys are commonly cussing and bullying each other. Those are the many boys who are immature. This is why I need to stand up against gender segregation; where's it going to get you?

More than 1 age

Submitted by Anonymous on 19 January 2015 - 1:57pm.

I would agree if you only have 1 age of boy. However, if the school is gender-seperated there would be older, more mature boys available to be mentors to the younger ones.