Single-gender programs are a topic of discussion in many schools today. We are university professors whose school administers a professional development program in partnership with high schools on issues such as single-gender programs. As our Professional Development School (PDS) partnership did more than 10 years ago, many school districts are considering single-gender programs as an educational option that helps meet the learning needs of all students. Although single-gender programs are controversial, longitudinal data from our program site has shown academic benefits for students in such classrooms. Specifically, students in the single-gender program have regularly outperformed students in mixed-gender classes.
The impetus for establishing a single-gender program at our professional development school came from a teacher who observed that classrooms were not “boy-friendly.” After the teacher discussed this observation with PDS faculty at the university and with the school principal, academic data were collected and examined. It revealed that boys were lagging behind in all areas except math application.
So, we embarked on a long but exciting journey of developing a single-gender program in a public elementary school. Our single-gender program has now been in place for 12 years and has hosted numerous visitors and educators who are interested in this educational option.
In order to implement a single-gender program, you’ll want to keep the following considerations in mind.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has clarified the requirements for the implementation of single-gender programs in public schools. It is important to examine these OCR requirements during the discussion phase of development. Use them as a checklist to ensure that all programs are in compliance with the Title IX regulations (see sidebar below).
Undertaking a single-gender program takes time. We spent approximately a year preparing for the start of the program by examining available research relating to single-gender pedagogy and sending teachers from the PDS and university faculty to national workshops on the topic. We recommend that faculty have extensive professional development to learn about and examine information on single-gender teaching strategies and programs before beginning such an initiative. Books by Leonard Sax and Abigail James provide excellent background information for participants and encourage critical discussions about issues and concerns related to single-gender programs (see resource list below). If possible, we also recommend visits to school sites and attendance at conferences to provide insights into what makes a successful program. Prior to providing a program, the interested partnership school may also need to seek approval from the school district.
It’s also important to discuss academic and behavioral assessments when considering single-gender programs. Schools and districts need to have a comprehensive data evaluation system to collect data for decision-making purposes. Data-driven decisions usually include achievement levels of boys and girls, as well as behavioral information on attendance and referrals. This type of data is usually requested by school districts before decisions are made to begin new programs. Further, activities such as community meetings with parents and civic groups allow people to learn about the single-gender program option prior to implementation. The school should send letters to parents, disseminate brochures with the program overview, hold school meetings to address questions and concerns, and post information on the school website before the program launches.
The Issue of Choice
Families must be given the opportunity to opt in to the single-gender program. This works best in schools where the student population is stable and the community does not have a lot of mobility. Many districts may use the single-gender program as a school variance option, which allows parents from other areas to select the single-gender option for their children.
Educators should also be given the choice of teaching in a single-gender class. Teachers should embrace the differences in learning and teaching styles and recognize that they may be better suited for teaching boys or girls. While administrators may observe behaviors they think would make an individual a better teacher of boys or girls, it is important to allow the educator to make the final decision. This adheres to the OCR guideline 9, which prohibits discrimination against faculty. It is our experience that programs in which teachers are told they are teaching single-gender classes without any personal input aren’t as successful as teachers who chose to teach in single-gender classrooms. Innovative educators who are risk-takers generally do well in these environments. As with many educational programs, the quality of the teacher impacts the success of the students—these classes will not transform an average teacher into a stellar teacher.
Just as administrators do for traditional mixed-gender classes, they should balance academic and social characteristics in single-gender classrooms so that each class has a mix of academic levels and behaviors. For example, all the students with behavior problems should not be placed in a boys’ class and all the outwardly ultra-feminine girls placed in another. Such selections perpetuate gender stereotypes and should be avoided. In addition, the ages of the students should be considered so that all of the youngest of any grade level are not in one class, but spread among the older students.
Also, it is important to remember that single-gender classes are not an option for every boy or every girl.
If teachers are knowledgeable about gender-teaching strategies, they often are the best sources for determining which students should be placed in single-gender rooms. Knowledgeable educators can help identify students who work well in less structured environments, or those who prefer a quieter atmosphere with defined work areas. No method for identifying students for single-gender classes is foolproof, so some movement among classes may be necessary the first few weeks of school. It is important to note that parents must be aware that all requests for single-gender placements may not be honored due to appropriate behavioral and academic balance of classrooms.
Curriculum and Assessment
Curriculum in single-gender and mixed-gender classes is the same; however, the teaching strategies in gender-specific classrooms vary. Before program implementation, single-gender teachers should immerse themselves in teaching strategies and how to incorporate diverse teaching techniques. In the first years, you can see significant growth in how teachers address these learning differences in boy or girl classes; ongoing discussions and book studies of the best strategies are essential as teachers continue to work in single-gender classrooms. Discussions centered on lesson pacing, movement, and grouping patterns are extremely helpful topics for teachers in single-gender classrooms, as these can vary.
Assessments should also be carefully planned. Typical assessments in single-gender classrooms include some measures of academic success, both standardized and curriculum-based. In addition, it is important that data on discipline referrals, attendance, and tardiness be closely monitored. Further, measures of student, teacher, and parent attitudes should be collected in an ongoing fashion.
As schools think about single-gender programs, it is important for educators to consider the gender stereotypes that are prevalent in our society. We have found that while gender stereotypes are magnified in gender-specific classes, they can be addressed head-on by educators in these classrooms. The focus of single-gender programs should always be the constant narrowing of the gender gap and breaking down of gender stereotypes.
Mercedes Tichenor and Kathy Piechura are professors of education at Stetson University in DeLand, FL, and are members of the Nina B. Hollis Institute for Educational Reform. Elizabeth Heins is a professor of education at Stetson University and the director of the Nina B. Hollis Institute for Educational Reform.
Sidebar: Offering Single-Gender Classes: What You Need to Know
To offer single-gender classes or extracurricular activities, schools must:
- Identify an important objective that it seeks to achieve by offering a single-gender class (such as improving academic achievement).
- Demonstrate that the single-gender nature of the class is substantially related to achieving that objective.
- Ensure that enrollment in the single-gender class is completely voluntary (through an opt-in, rather than an opt-out, process).
- Offer a substantially equal coed class in the same subject.
- Offer single-gender classes evenhandedly to male and female students.
- Conduct periodic evaluations at least every two years to ensure that the classes continue to comply with Title IX.
- Avoid relying on gender stereotypes.
- Provide equitable access to single-gender classes to students with disabilities and English-language learners.
- Avoid discriminating against faculty members based on gender when assigning educators to single-gender classrooms.
- Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences by Leonard Sax
- Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by Leonard Sax
- Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls—Sexual Identity, the Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins by Leonard Sax
- Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey
- Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School by Abigail Norfleet James
- Teaching the Female Brain: How Girls Learn Math and Science by Abigail Norfleet James