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Researchers examine 'pseudoscience' of single-sex schooling

September 22, 2011

While many parents choose to put their children in single-sex schools and anecdotal evidence may show these schools perform excellently, there is no well-designed research that demonstrates that these schools improve a student’s academic performance.

There is, however, evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping among children and teachers and legitimizes institutional sexism. These findings are the focus of a new article that examines “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” published in the Sept. 23 issue of the journal Science.

Reported by researchers in ASU’s School of Social and Family Dynamics and social scientists from other universities, the article presents information for parents to consider when they are choosing an educational setting for their children.

Teaching boys and girls separately has become increasingly popular during recent years with at least 500 public school single-sex classrooms currently in the United States.

“Though public sentiment may have strengthened in support of such settings for improving the learning environment and outcomes for both boys and girls, the science is just not there to support this,” said Richard Fabes, an author of the Science article and director of the School of Social and Family Dynamics in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Fabes and the other co-authors cite evidence to the contrary, including a U.S. Department of Education review comparing single-sex and coeducational outcomes, which concluded that results of both are equal. Similar large-scale reviews in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand found little overall difference between single-sex and mixed-sex academic outcomes.

In addition, claims that boys and girls learn differently is not supported by brain research since neuroscientists have found few sex differences in children’s brains beyond the larger volume of boys' brains and the earlier completion of girls' brain growth, neither of which is known to relate to learning, the article states.

Differences among the sexes can grow in sex-segregated environments, making positive interactions between boys and girls constrained, the social scientists write.

“Pos­itive and cooperative interaction with mem­bers of other groups is an effective method for improving intergroup relationships,” according to the authors.

There is evidence, however, that sex segregation increases gender divisions among children, according to the article.

“Separating boys and girls in public school classrooms makes gender very salient, and this salience reinforces stereotypes and sexism,” Fabes said.

The social scientists noted that research shows that children exposed to environments where individuals are labeled and segregated along some characteristic – gender, eye color or randomly assigned t-shirt groups – infer that the groups differ in important ways and develop biases in their individual groups.

“Is it ever good to segregate on the basis of race, income or age? I think the answer is no,” Fabes said. “There is no good evidence that it is ever a good time to separate and segregate. Any form of segregation undermines rather than promotes equality.”

The lead author is Diane F. Halpern of Claremont McKenna College. Other authors include ASU social scientists Carol Lynn Martin and Laura Hanish, Lise Eliot of the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University, Rebecca S. Bigler of the University of Texas at Austin, Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Lynn S. Liben of Pennsylvania State University.

Researchers at ASU’s School of Social and Family Dynamics have worked with other social scientists to create the American Council for CoEducational Schooling, which is made up of scholars and citizens from across the United States who are focused on children, education, families and communities.

ASU social scientists also are working on an initiative through the Sanford Harmony Program, a research and curriculum initiative funded by philanthropist T. Denny Sanford that is working to understand and enhance relationships among girls and boys.