Teachers unimpressed with effects of single-sex classes in one school

stock-photo-12910161-education foldersSingle-sex classes are one of the latest gambits to improve students’ academic performance and reduce behavioral problems. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education recently released guidelines to help districts set up single-sex classes in coeducation schools. Single-sex classes  are believed to be especially beneficial for boys.

But, in a recent article in Educational Studies, researchers Colette Gray and Joanne Wilson report that in a secondary school in Northern Ireland, where one cohort of pupils has been taught in single-sex classrooms for four years, teachers are unimpressed with the results and do not support continuing the initiative. Ironically, if anything, the program seems to have had a neutral effect on girls and to have been more detrimental to boys, the teachers report. 

“At the medium-sized school of 600-700 students in a working-class area, single-sex classes did not raise academic achievement nor improve behavior for these students, according to surveys of teachers in the school. Only 16% of teachers believed single-sex classes raised standards and a majority favored abandoning the experiment. Many teachers found teaching boys’ classes stressful and believed that a “macho mind-set” increased disruptive behavior, bullying and discouraged academic achievement. 

To raise performance in English and math, Grade 8 pupils in 2000 were taught these subjects in single-sex classes. When the students progressed to grades 9, 10 and 11 all subjects were taught in single-sex classes Gray and Wilson analyzed the results of a survey of 43 teachers (31 female and 12 male) and interviews (one-to-one and small group) with a stratified sample of 15 teachers. The researchers focused specifically on

• Teacher’s involvement in the implementation process;
• The impact on teachers’ enjoyment of teaching;
• Teachers’ perception of the impact of this approach on classroom behavior and academic performance; and
• Teachers’ views on the sustainability of the approach.

Negative effect on boys

Most teachers–77%–disagreed with the statement that single-sex classes have a positive effect on boys’ behavior, with many believing the classes created new behavior problems. According to the researchers, the majority of teachers believed that “some boys actively encourage and reinforce bad behavior, with some teachers noting that “It now is seen as fine to defy teachers’ and to show ‘disaffection’, ‘disinterest’ and ‘aggression’.”  While some teachers noted that girls could be catty and unpleasant to each other in single-sex classrooms, nearly two-thirds did not see a negative impact on girls’ behavior.

Only 23% of the teachers were convinced that the single-sex classes had a positive impact on boys’ academic performance, compared with 39% who felt that
girls’ academic performance improved in single-sex classrooms.

disturbing trend noted in previous research is that boys in single-sex classes used terms of abuse they had previously applied to girls to put down other boys. According to one teacher, “{boys} compete with each other for attention in class and those who do want to learn, particularly in the lower-band classes, are made the butt of class jokes. It’s not seen as trendy, it ruins their street cred.” Some male teachers observed that boys who are shy, smaller than their peers and have feminine qualities may be more likely to be targeted for bullying.

Many teachers believe that peer pressure not to stand out academically contributed to declining examination results. They indicated that this class of students may be one of the academically weaker cohorts. But, by implementing single-sex classes across all subjects, the school basically eliminated its control group in the initiative, so it is difficult to lay the blame for declining exam results with the single-sex initiative, according to the researchers.

“Typically, experiments with single-sex classes target specific subject areas, such as mathematics and English, before implementing them across the curriculum,” the researchers write. “By monitoring behavior within and between classes, teachers can test the hypothesis that single-sex classes have a detrimental effect on pupils’ behavior and academic performance.”

Only 26% of teachers would recommend single-sex classes to another school. The researchers noted that while teachers acknowledged that the initiative was a last-ditch effort to do something about falling standards, they may have forgotten the scope of the problems before implementation. 

A recurring theme of teachers’ responses is that they were not adequately consulted about the plan or trained on how to implement it.  Few teachers felt prepared for the single-sex initiative, with 71% describing as “inadequate” the training available to teachers prior to implementation.
Less than a third of teachers remembered being consulted before the program was instituted, perhaps helping to explain why nearly two-thirds said the initiative was unpopular with staff, with many saying they felt “devalued,” “distanced from the process,” and “excluded” from the decision-making system. The
researchers note that there is substantial research to indicate that “teachers’ attitudes to systems can either positively or negatively facilitate their implementation.” 

Clearly, the results indicate the importance of the consultation phase, the necessity of getting teachers to buy in or invest in the program. Beyond that however, the researchers suggest that it may be better to use single-sex classes in specific areas of the curriculum. Using this approach,
pupils serve as their own control group to better gauge the effectiveness of the approach.

“Teachers’ experiences of a single-sex initiative in a co-education school,” by Colette Gray and Joanne Wilson, Educational Studies, September 2006, Volume 32, Number 3, pps. 285-298.

Published in ERN November 2006 Volume 19, Number 8

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