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April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

How Tweens View Single-Sex Classes

A distraction-free space for risk taking, challenge, and fun are what these middle schoolers relish in single-sex classrooms.

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Have you ever heard that saying, ‘Time flies when you're having fun?’ All-boy classes are fun!” James, a 6th grader, cheerfully offered this opinion of the single-sex academic classes at Hudson Valley Middle School.He quickly added, “I will probably want to be with girls when I am in high school.”
Melissa, 13, expressed an older adolescent's point of view: “You can say what you want in all-girl classes and not be afraid of being teased, but sometimes we just want to be with the guys.”
James and Melissa are part of the majority of students at this middle school in the rural Hudson Valley of upstate New York who have chosen to attend single-sex classes in language arts, math, science, and social studies. Hudson Valley Middle School, a public school whose 600 students come mostly from low-income backgrounds, has offered voluntary single-sex academic classes to its 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students for the last three years. Students remain in mixed groups for nonacademic classes and at lunchtime so they are not isolated from opposite-gender peers. In the first year of this reform, approximately 75 percent of the school's students chose to take single-sex classes; during the last two years, the majority of those students continued with that choice.
As part of my research into single-sex education (Spielhagen, 2005), I interviewed 24 Hudson Valley students—a combination of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders—who had attended single-sex classes for at least one academic year. Their comments offer insights into the minds of tweens who have sampled single-sex learning. Their perspectives indicate that voluntary single-sex classes can be a viable option for middle school students, but that such arrangements are most effective when classes are designed to address students' developmental needs. The younger students were more likely to find being in a single-sex class a positive experience; as students got older, they expressed more desire to be in mixed classes, even when that choice entailed potential problems.

Why Try Single-Sex Learning?

Concern over state standardized test scores prompted Hudson Valley Middle School to create voluntary single-sex classes. The school hoped that providing an environment free of the distraction caused by mixed-gender social interaction would lead to higher scores.
In the 19th century, single-sex schools were common, especially in grades 7 through 12. However, because classes for girls did not include academic subjects that would lead to higher education, early feminists urged that schools give all students access to the entire academic curriculum. Coeducational schools soon became the preferred model of public education, opening the doors to college enrollment for substantial numbers of girls.
Even then, secondary schools continued to maintain single-sex physical education classes until 1975. In that year, the provisions of Title IX (Tyack & Hansot, 2002) specifically forbade separate-gender physical education classes. According to Salomone (2003), many school districts misunderstood Title IX as a ban on all single-sex classes. Either way, emphasis on coeducational physical education classes quickly led to coeducation as the norm for public schools.
Meanwhile, over the last 20 years, education policymakers have noted the need to reverse declines in achievement among both boys and girls. Researchers agree that the middle school years are crucial to forming sound study habits (Clewell, 2002), but they have mixed opinions as to whether a return to single-sex classes would enhance the achievement of young adolescents.
For example, in 1995, Sadker and Sadker claimed that coeducational schools shortchange girls. At the same time, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) endorsed single-sex arrangements as a means of promoting female achievement, particularly in mathematics and science. Within a few years, however, the AAUW (1998) reversed its stance and concluded that single-sex classes could lead to programming decisions that discriminated against girls. In terms of boys, Sommers (2002) believes that single-sex arrangements are advantageous for boys who lag in academic areas, particularly reading and writing.

Listening to Student Voices

From ages 9 through 13, young adolescents experience tremendous physical, emotional, and cognitive development, so it is not surprising that the responses of students with whom I talked varied according to their ages. I asked students about their classroom choices, their perceptions of the classroom environment in single-sex as compared with mixed-gender groups, and their satisfaction level. The majority of the students had positive feelings about single-sex classes, with 62 percent stating that they could focus better without the opposite sex present. In general, the younger the student, the more enthusiastic the praise of the single-sex arrangement.

The 6th Grade Perspective

Sixth grade students' comments revealed a pre-adolescent viewpoint that the behavior of the other sex was a problem. Both boys and girls in 6th grade referred to their opposite-gender peers as “noisy” and “annoying.”
James, a slightly built 11-year-old, responded energetically to questions about being in all-boy classes. He admitted that his favorite class was gym “because you get to play games using your skills,” but noted that he didn't pay much attention to the girls in the mixed gym classes because he and his friends (all boys) liked to be on teams together. James also said that he felt “more challenged” in his all-boy classes because he enjoyed the competition with other boys: I want to try to beat them. I didn't try to beat the girls [when I was in mixed classes] because I didn't think I could beat the top girls, so why bother?
The comments of 6th grade girls reinforced the conventional wisdom that girls experience more freedom in single-sex academic classes, particularly math and science. Alison, 11, said she “loves all-girl classes,” especially math classes, because she's “good at math.” She emphasized that in all-girl classes, “you don't have to worry about boys making fun of you.” Twelve-year-old Becky echoed Alison's concerns about intellectual safety in mixed classes. When asked why she chose all-girl classes, she replied, The boys always picked on me because I am smarter than they are. In all-girl classes, the teachers word things better and say them differently. In mixed classes, they say things more simply for the boys.
She added that all-girl classes are fun and the students get more accomplished, even though the girls “get loud and ask too many questions.”

7th and 8th Grade Perspectives

Although by 7th grade many students' attitudes had begun to shift toward typically adolescent emotional and social concerns, 7th graders consistently remarked on their ability to focus better in their single-sex classes. Mary, a 13-year-old 7th grader, reported that she had meant to try all-girl classes for just a year but had decided to stay with the arrangement. She reported a definite improvement in her grades, noting that “I can concentrate better. I am not afraid to raise my hand.”
Another 7th grader, Nancy, reported that In mixed classes, you are too nervous to ask a question and be wrong and the boys might laugh at you. We get higher grades because we pay attention more and don't get distracted.
On the other hand, Heather, 13, complained that she was in an all-girl class because “my mom decided to torture me.” Heather went along with her mother's choice because she was curious. She conceded that she liked the all-girl classes because they made it easier to relate to her girlfriends but added that the situation allowed girls to “help each other with guy problems.” Heather was clearly becoming more interested in mixed-gender social pairing. She offered another adolescent insight, noting, In some ways it's really nice to be with your friends, but sometimes the girls get catty, and it is hard to get space away from them.
The 7th and 8th grade boys were less enthusiastic than the girls about single-sex classes. Bullying seemed to become more of a problem with only boys present. Danny, 13, noted that he had been curious about all-boy classes, but that after two years in such classes, he planned to choose mixed-gender classes for 8th grade. In the all-boy classes, Danny reported, he could talk more about sports with his friends and “just hang out,” but that “boys try to act tougher” in that environment. Eighth grader Jim, also 13, admitted that he had been picked on by other boys in mixed classes in 7th grade, but that mistreatment was worse in the all-boy classes. He explained, “The guys who pick on us would be more interested in impressing the girls” in a mixed-gender group. Jim added that he missed being with his female friends.

What Are the Students Telling Us?

From these tweens' perspective, single-sex classes can clearly contribute to a comfortable yet intellectually challenging middle school experience. Such arrangements work as long as students can choose whether or not to participate.
Students in all grades reinforced the importance of emotional, intellectual, and physical safety—perennial concerns in the middle grades. The problem of bullying reared its head among the 7th and 8th grade boys, but the students did not agree on which arrangement might be less bully-prone. However, caution dictates that schools take measures to ensure that a Lord of the Flies scenario does not emerge from a policy that keeps boys in the same single-sex grouping during all three years of middle school. Sorting students into different all-male configurations for different years might address this problem.
The overwhelmingly positive responses from the girls in this study suggest that single-sex classes are particularly beneficial to middle school girls. Even 8th grade girls supported the notion that greater concentration is possible in all-girl classes. As the girls grew older, they became more assertive about their interest in boys. Unlike the boys, however, they expressed a feeling of bonding with their female classmates and enjoyed discussing issues about boys together.
Students experienced the distraction presented by the opposite gender in different ways as they grew older. Younger kids complained about the noisiness of their opposite-sex peers, whereas older students simply referred to the social distractions of having the opposite sex in their classrooms. However, older students loudly and clearly stated their preference for facing those distractions.

How Tweens View Single-Sex Classes

Cell phone ownership among children ages 12–14 increased from 13 percent in February 2002 to 40 percent by the end of 2004.

—Study by NOP World Technology, reported in The Miami Herald, Sept. 24, 2005

Offering Multiple Options

Turning Points 2000 (Jackson & Davis, 2000), a landmark document on middle school reform, recommended that middle schools organize learning climates that promote intellectual development and shared academic purpose. According to the students in my study, single-sex classes in public middle schools support these goals. Turning Points 2000 also called for middle schools to offer multiple options to students. Hudson Valley Middle School displays innovative programming by restricting single-sex classes to the academic core courses so that students can experience the benefits of both single-sex classes and day-to-day interaction with students of the other sex. Offering subject-specific single-sex classes in each grade might provide even more flexibility, as long as the curriculum remains identical for both genders.
Providing optional single-sex environments for young adolescents within the existing public middle school framework would offer cost-effective school choice for parents, involving them as stakeholders in the education of their children. For many tweens, single-sex classes provide an enviable situation in which learning time flies because students are having fun.

American Association of University Women. (1998).Separated by sex: A critical look at single-sex education for girls. Washington, DC: Author.

Clewell, B. (2002). Breaking the barriers: The critical middle school years. In E. Rassen, L. Iura, & P. Berkman (Eds.),Gender in education (pp. 301–313). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jackson, A., & Davis, G. (2000). Turning points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York: Carnegie Corporation.

Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1995). Failing at fairness: How our schools cheat girls. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Salomone, R. (2003). Same, different, equal: Rethinking single-sex schooling. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sommers, C. (2002). Why Johnny can't, like, read and write. In E. Rassen, L. Iura, & P. Berkman (Eds.),Gender in education (pp. 700–721). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Spielhagen, F. (2005). Separate by choice: Single-sex classes in a public middle school. Unpublished manuscript.

Tyack, D., & Hansot, E. (2002). Feminists discover the hidden injuries of coeducation. In E. Rassen, L. Iura, & P. Berkman (Eds.), Gender in education (pp. 12–50). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

End Notes

1 All names in this article are pseudonyms.

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