Girls-only math and science classes boost performance, but not attitudes

iStock_000024628267XSmallGirls who studied math and science in girls-only classes early in high school achieved more in these subjects later in high school, but were still anxious about math and lacking in confidence, according to a Canadian study on the effects of girls-only classes in math and science during 9th and 10th grades in two public, coeducational high schools. The girls completed their education in math and science in coeducational classes in the last two years of high school.

Previous research has shown mixed results on achievement from girls-only classes. Much of the research that has been carried out in sex-segregated schools is not likely to be applicable to public education, write Jennifer D. Shapka, University of British Columbia, and Daniel P. Keating, University of Toronto, the authors of the study published in American Educational Research Journal. There tend to be significant academic and socioeconomic differences between public- and private- school students, they note.

Public school settings

Very few studies have examined the effects of single-sex education programs within public-school settings. In the few available, some differences were noted: Girls tend to enjoy single-sex classes more than boys, and it appears that girls benefit more in terms of improved confidence and achievement than boys. But much of this research is questionable because students selected these programs themselves and studies were not controlled for this self-selection.

In this study, 786 Canadian students were followed for two years. Eighty-five girls attended girls-only classes, and 319 girls and 382 boys attended regular coeducational classes. Researchers collected data about student backgrounds, psychological characteristics, parental education, perceived parental expectations, perceived teacher effectiveness and math achievement. Researchers collected information about perceptions of ability as well as actual enrollment and achievement in advanced classes because perceptions of one’s abilities have been found to be powerful moderators of behavior. Lower self-perceptions lead to decreased enrollment in math and science classes as well as lower performance.

Students also self-reported math anxiety and math competence, and effort expended on math through four years of high school. All students in the study were in a university-bound, advanced-level academic track. They were taught the same curriculum with the same pool of teachers, and all classes were similar in size (20 to 25 students).

Because no standardized achievement test is used for university admission in Canada, course grades were used to measure achievement Significant effects were found from the girls-only curriculum for subsequent achievement and course enrollment. However, there were no significant effects on self-confidence or math anxiety, write the authors.

These researchers sought to address limitations in previous research by controlling for characteristics and other variables among the students and by following up on long-term achievement and attitudes toward math and science.

Students in this study were from middle- and upper-middle-income families. Girls in the single-sex classes did not differ from their peers in coeducational classes on key variables that could influence the effects of the program.

The outcomes were measured once all students were back in regular coeducational classes to examine the long-term benefits of the single-sex instruction and to ensure that any benefits were not simply an artifact of enrollment in a special program. There was strong evidence that girls who were taught math and science in single-sex classes for two years at the beginning of high school excelled at a higher level in subsequent math and science courses and that they took more courses in these subjects.

But, self-reports about math anxiety and competence indicated that girls in single-sex classes did not differ in their level of math anxiety or perceived competence compared to girls in coeducational classes. Girls in single-sex classes expended more effort than girls in coeducational classes, however.

The results indicate that single-sex classes in public schools could reduce the gender disparity in these subjects and ultimately, in math- and science-related occupations. Shapka and Keating call for future research with lower-income students. The researchers could not explain why single-sex classes, while improving persistence and achievement in these subjects, did not reduce levels of math anxiety in girls.

Although the teachers, curriculum, assignments and tests were the same, it was not possible to know, without classroom observation, if different instructional styles were adopted for all-girls classes. In addition, nonrandom assignment and the 70% average in prior achievement may have meant that the all-girls classes were more homogeneous and perhaps easier to teach because of the absence of the lowest achievers, rather than the absence of boys. It isn’t known if climate in the all-girls classes differed from that in coeducational classes. Shapka and Keating suggest two questions for continuing research: Are these program effects generalizable to other contexts and populations, and do these program effects persist beyond high school?

“Effects of a Girls-Only Curriculum During Adolescence: Performance, Persistence, and Engagement in Mathematics and Science”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 40, Number 4, Winter 2003, pp. 929-960.

Published in ERN May/June 2004 Volume 17 Number 5

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