Q&A: The Pros and Cons of Single Sex Education

Dec 22, 2014

This story is part of an occasional series from KUT called Gender Divide, which will tell stories about the communities in Austin ISD's new single-sex middle schools, while also exploring the debate over single-sex education.

Are there benefits to single sex education? 

UT Austin Professor Rebecca Bigler studies gender stereotyping and single sex education. She argues single sex education does not improve academic performance.
Credit UT Austin

It's one of the major questions educators and parents are asking as more public schools nationwide create single sex campuses or single sex classrooms on campus. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 850 public single sex schools across the country. 

UT Professor Rebecca Bigler is one person who says single sex education doesn't benefit students academically, or in any way. 

Bigler studies gender stereotyping and social cognition in children. She also wrote a paper in 2011 about single sex education at the Ann Richard's School for Young Women Leaders, the first single sex school in the Austin Independent School District. The study argues single sex education doesn't affect academic performance, and increases gender stereotyping.

As part of KUT's series on single sex education called Gender Divide, KUT's Kate McGee spoke with Bigler about the national debate over single sex education:

Interview Highlights:

On single sex school research: The big meta-analysis came out that looked at performance of 1.6 million children around the country that were assigned to single sex or co-educational schools, that looked at what happens when children are largely equal to start, or when you control for the difference. That found that single sex schools has trivial or non-existent effects on academic achievement. What controls and largely affects academic achievement is the quality of instruction in the school. 

On single sex schools in low income neighborhoods: “Single sex schools are being pushed on communities of color and communities of lower economic students. That’s not just Austin, that’s all over the country. There is some sense of these schools are low performing, we are out of solutions and in our desperation we will try anything, even things that have no support for them scientifically. And if you’re cynical, you might look and say it’s a way to look like you’re doing something, even though you know it’s not based on science and it’s not going to work, but politically looking like, “oh, see I’m helping in some way.”

On the argument that single sex schools give parents a choice: "We have asked questions about what kid? What test can you give to see if my daughter is going to thrive in a single schools or nothing good with come of it? There are no answers. There are no profiles of certain kinds of kids. So, in other words, you’re saying to a parent, ‘We have no idea what kind of kid would do well in a single sex school, but if you want to for some reason just do this, go ahead and do it and you should have the right.’"

On whether single sex education can affect other outcomes besides academics:  "The meta analysis of 1.6 million children looked at other outcomes besides academic and a big category was self-esteem. So they looked at all the studies that measured girls self-esteem. No effect, none. There was no effect affect on girl’s self-esteem of going to a single sex or co-ed school. Our argument is there are wonderful single sex schools. There are schools that have all these wonderful things: good teachers, well trained, committed teachers. Right? Great school days, enrichment programs in place. We know some of those schools that are great in those ways are single sex . Our argument is if you let in a few boys, would it have all failed?"