School Choice Series: Single-Gender Schools: The Pros, Cons – and Everything in Between

By: Susan Kehl | Last Updated: November 29, 2022





When it comes to school selection, families have a variety of considerations and questions. Will a local public school be the best option for your child, or might a religious, charter, magnet, or other specialized school prove a better fit? JRA Educational Consulting’s ‘School Choice’ blog series will help you cut through the confusion and guide you in selecting the best-fit school for your child.

Our first stop addresses single-gender schools. Is there a benefit to learning among same-sexed peers? Do single-sex classrooms improve academic performance for both female and male students?

Given that experts see pros and cons to single-gender education, how do you know if a single-gender school is right for your child?

Why Choose a Single-Gender School?

When it comes to single-gender education, the research and data are mixed. Advocates believe single-sex schools empower students, boost self-confidence, and allow students to excel in an environment free from potential distractions created by interacting with the opposite sex. In addition, single-gender schools can customize their curriculum to accommodate the different gender approaches to learning, taking into account physical, social, emotional, and cognitive differences.

Dr. Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education and author of several books including “Why Gender Matters,” “Boys Adrift,” and “Girls on the Edge,” says studies have shown that girls and boys learn differently. Although sex differences in the brain diminish with age, they are most evident between school-aged girls and boys.

“Girls and boys see the world in subtly different ways, and research suggests that the various regions of the brain develop in a different sequence in boys compared with girls,” he said. “Teachers who understand these differences can break down gender stereotypes. They can enable more girls to excel in and enjoy math and computer science, and they can inspire more boys to get excited about creative writing, poetry, and the Spanish language.”

Barb Leventhal, an educational consultant with more than 30 years of experience (and the former director of an all-girls school), agrees. She believes that single-gender schools give students the freedom to be themselves and not conform to traditional expectations.

“Single-gender education can provide students the confidence they may not get in a co-ed classroom,” she said. “It eliminates stereotypical barriers – where some girls may not want to appear ‘smart’ in front of boys, and some boys may not want to risk looking ‘dumb’ if they give an incorrect answer in front of girls. Students in a single-gender school can be themselves – and not feel judged by the opposite sex.”

Girls and Single-Gender Education

Generally speaking, there are more boys than girls in a typical co-educational classroom. Being outnumbered may make girls feel at a disadvantage. In fact, statistics indicate that a majority of leadership roles go to boys in co-ed schools, so all-girl schools give girls a greater opportunity to develop leadership skills. Girls also take a more active role in sports in single-gender schools, and have the confidence to excel in traditionally male-dominated subjects like math and STEM subjects. Girls hold every position in student government, on the robotics team, and on the athletic field.

Some studies indicate that these benefits extend beyond high school. According to the International Coalition of Girls’ Schools, graduates of girls’ schools are six times more likely to major in math, science, and technology and three times more likely to major in engineering than girls who graduated from co-educational schools. The coalition also noted that – when compared with girls who graduate from co-educational schools – girls’ school graduates tend to demonstrate more community involvement, greater cultural and racial sensitivity, and increased political engagement.

Several prominent women graduated from girls’ high schools including Madeline Albright, Tory Burch, Drew Gilpin Faust (the first female president of Harvard), Gwyneth Paltrow, Lady Gaga, Rosa Parks, Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice, and Sally Ride (the first American woman to fly in space).

Boys Attending Single-Gender Schools

Several studies suggest that traditional co-educational schools use teaching methods more conducive with the way girls learn, where students are expected to sit quietly during lengthy lectures. However, in general, that’s not how boys learn.

Some research suggests that in girls, the cerebral cortex is more geared toward verbal learning, while a boy’s cerebral cortex is more targeted toward spatial and visual learning. There’s also evidence indicating that boys tend to be more restless than girls. An all-boys’ school can engage boys in the classroom using teaching methods targeted to their specific learning styles – like incorporating hands-on, interactive lessons with opportunities for movement at regular intervals.

Advocates of single-gender education also believe that learning with the same sex makes both genders feel more confident about branching out and exploring new interests and activities. In fact, young men who attend an all-boys’ school are shown to be more likely to pursue music, art, foreign language and other subjects typically labeled as ‘feminine.’ Single-gender schools may also help motivate boys to challenge themselves academically in high school and beyond.

A study by the Brookings Institution shows that girls graduate high school at a higher rate than boys, and fewer boys than girls are enrolling in college. According to The Atlantic, in 2020, colleges enrolled 1.5 million fewer students than they did five years ago, and men accounted for more than 70 percent of that decline. Advocates believe that a single-gender environment can empower boys and help close this gender gap.

Well-known men who attended all-boys’ schools include George H.W. Busch, George W. Busch, Steve Carell, Al Gore, Tom Hardy, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, John Kerry, Daniel Radcliffe, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Reasons You May NOT Want To Choose a Single-Gender School

  • While advocates cite studies supporting the merits of single-gender schools, opponents present equally compelling studies demonstrating the opposite. Some experts claim that there is no conclusive evidence supporting the effectiveness of single-gender education. Instead, opponents hypothesize that other factors, like sociocultural influences, may account for what appear to be gender differences in learning.

  • For example, a study in the Journal of Science and Learning concluded that boys and girls learn and solve math problems in similar ways. In their study of boys and girls aged three to eleven, both sexes engaged the same neural system during mathematics development, and their brains functioned similarly during mathematical processing.

  • Although Leventhal sees many advantages to single-gender schools, she also believes that there are some disadvantages.

  • “One of the downsides of a single-gender classroom is the lack of opportunity to befriend and work cooperatively with someone of the opposite sex, she said. “It’s important to really be a friend and learn how to treat someone of the opposite gender with camaraderie and respect.”

  • Dr. Sax adds that in order for single-gender education to be effective, teachers must be formally trained to understand gender-based performance gaps, the differences in the ways boys and girls learn, and how to effectively instruct single-sex classes.

“While teachers who understand gender differences in learning can eliminate gender stereotypes, ironically, a lack of understanding of gender differences can have the unintended consequence of reinforcing gender stereotypes,” he said. “If teachers don’t understand these differences, the result may produce girls who believe that ‘geometry is tough’ and boys who think ‘poetry is stupid.’”

Other potential disadvantages to single-gender education may include:

May not accommodate non-binary genders

Single-gender education typically operates under the assumption that there are two genders: male and female. However, in a time when an increasing number of teens are identifying as transgender or non-binary, single-gender education might make some students feel forced to conform to outdated gender norms.

Some see single-gender education as unlawful

Although the No Child Left Behind Act endorses single-sex classrooms and schools (as long as enrollment is voluntary), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights believe that single-sex education is unconstitutional and is a form of segregation.

Is a Single-Gender School Right For My Child?

Clearly, research indicates both advantages and disadvantages of single-gender schools. In the end, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution when it comes to school choice, and only you and your child can decide if a single-gender school is the right fit.

Dr. Sax maintains that the question, “Which is better, a single-gender or co-educational school?” is almost meaningless.

“The right question is, better for whom?,” he asked. “Every child is different. The single-gender format is good for some, but not for others – and the co-ed format is best for some, but not for others. We founded our non-profit organization to promote single-gender public education, not because we believed that single-gender is better for every child – it’s not – but because we thought that the choice of a single-gender format should not be limited to affluent families.”

But with such a wide range of instructional options and learning environments, choosing can be daunting.

Leventhal says that working with an expert can help families make informed decisions and introduce them to options – like single-gender schools – they may not have discovered on their own.

“An educational consultant provides invaluable insight, an unbiased evaluation of each school, and considers your child’s academic strengths, interests, and other factors to help you understand what the advantages and disadvantages might be,” she said. “Each school has its own character and reflects specific values, and a professional consultant can ensure that your family values permeate the school environment. We help you choose the best-fit school for your child – and for your family.”

Perhaps your child would thrive in a single-gender learning environment, which Leventhal says can help boys and girls foster a good sense of self.

“When you’re at a single-gender school, you start by saying, ‘I am a woman’ or ‘I am a man’ – or whatever sex you identify as,” she said. “Single-sex education can help give students a very clear picture of who they are, where they want to go, and how they plan to get there.”

Need help choosing an elementary, middle, or high school? Give us a call. We continually visit schools to remain current on their offerings, and we’ve been guiding families in their selection since 1992. We’ll help you find, apply to – and thrive in – the best-fit school for your child and your family.

Topics: Single-Gender Schools


Like this post? Share it!

Related Posts

Related Posts

Recent Posts

Posts by Topic

see all

Ready to move to the front of the class?

Let's discuss an educational plan that will get you or your student on a path to success.