Are same-sex classes better?

March 12, 2009 By Alan J. Salzberg
Yesterday's New York Times had an article, "Boys and Girls Together, Taught Separately in Public School," about same-sex classes in New York City. In particular, the article focused on P.S. 140 in the Bronx. The article looks upon such classes favorably, despite the fact that there is, as far as I can tell, no evidence that such classes lead to better achievement.


In particular, the article states: "Students of both sexes in the co-ed fifth grade did better on last year’s state tests in math and English than their counterparts in the single-sex rooms, and this year’s co-ed class had the highest percentage of students passing the state social studies exam."


In other words, the City is continuing this program, even though the evidence indicates that not only are students in same-sex classes doing no better, they are doing worse! The principal, who has introduced some programs that have achieved material results, said: "“We will do whatever works, however we can get there...we thought this would be another tool to try.” This seems reasonable, but the article states,"...unlike other programs aimed at improving student performance, there is no extra cost." There may not be a monetary cost, but making these students laboratory rats in someone's education research project doesn't help them, and, apparently in this case, hurts them. Not to mention the opportunity cost of not exposing these children to other programs that might actually help.


To be fair, the scholarly literature is not consistent in its conclusions about whether same-sex classes improve achievement. However, many of the U.S. studies showed little or no improvement. See, for example:
Singh and Vaught's study
LePore and Warren


On the other hand, some English and Australian studies indicate that, at least for girls, same-sex classes or schools may result in higher achievement (see, for example, Gillibrand E.; Robinson P.; Brawn R.; Osborn A.) while others indicate that there are no differences (see Harker).


So the literature seems to be mixed, and I would imagine there are numerous confounding factors that make this something hard to measure--for example, typical single-sex classes in New York City consist of low-income minority students, where the boys are seen as being at-risk more than the girls. Contrast with the British and other foreign studies, where the girls are the greater concern for under-achievement.


Despite this, it's questionable how long it is ethical to continue a program, like the one at P.S. 140, where the current known outcome is that boys and girls are doing worse in same-sex classes.