Q: A few years ago our daughter was having trouble in school. On the advice of friends, we sent her to an all-girls school, where she has thrived. Now, our son is starting to have problems and we’re wondering whether an all-boys school would be good for him. Is single-sex education as good for boys as it is for girls?
A: When people think of single-sex schools they usually have girls in mind. As you discovered on your own, girls in girls-only schools tend to do better than those in co-ed schools. What about boys? Well, not many people know about it, but the results are similar: boys in boys-only schools do much better than boys in co-ed. In fact the bump kids get from single-sex schools is even greater for boys than it is for girls, according to an exhaustive study by English researcher Graham Able.
There are also a number of advantages to single-sex education. According to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE – www.singlesexschools.org ), the two biggest ones are:
- Boys and girls learn differently, and teachers can custom-tailor their teaching style to the boys. Here’s how the NASSPE described what a boy-friendly classroom might look like: “Most boys will perk up and show some interest if you talk about things that are dangerous, or immense, or “yucky.” The boy who was bored by biology at the coed school will be interested if you bring in some black garden snakes. The boy who fell asleep in chemistry class will be energized if you give him an assignment to do a PowerPoint presentation on dynamite, with lots of pictures of things blowing up. Most boys enjoy blowing things up (or at least imagining blowing things up).
A girl-friendly classroom, “is a safe, comfortable, welcoming place. Forget hard plastic chairs: put in a sofa and some comfortable bean bags. Let the girls address their teacher by her (or his) first name. The teacher should never yell or shout at a girl. Girls will naturally break up in groups of three and four to work on problems. If you’re assigning class presentations, let two girls give a joint presentation. The format of one student giving a presentation to an entire class doesn’t work as well (for girls) as two students giving a joint presentation to a smaller group.”
- The single-sex classroom promotes a more diverse and well-rounded educational experience. Boys and girls in co-ed schools spend a lot of time worrying about what the other gender will think of them. Girls may worry that if they’re smart boys won’t find them attractive. They may dumb down their own performance in some subject and avoid others (like math and science) altogether. Boys try to impress girls by being tough, and they stay away from “girlie” activities like chorus, drama, debating, foreign languages. They may also under-perform, worrying that being a straight-A student will make them seem nerdy to the other boys. The bottom line is that in single-sex schools girls can be girls and boys can be boys.
One other important advantage of single-sex education, especially for boys, is that there are likely to be more male teachers than in a co-ed school, where 80 percent of teachers are women. “Learning from a teacher of the opposite gender has a detrimental effect on students’ academic progress,” according to Thomas Dee, an economist at Swarthmore College. Dee also found that when a class is headed by a woman teacher, boys are more likely to be seen as disruptive. And disruptive children often end up in remedial classes or getting Ritalin or some other drug to “control” their behavior.
Researcher Henry Biller points out that in Japan, where about half of elementary school teachers are men, boy’s and girls’ reading scores are equal. In Germany, where the majority of school teachers are men, boys not only score higher than girls, but they are also less likely to suffer from severe reading problems.