Coeducation And Single-Sex Schooling Research Paper

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Coeducation or single-sex schooling does not only refer to an organizational form of separating or mixing girls and boys, but also refers to such questions as: should there be different goals, curricula, rights, and outcomes for the two genders? Equality is not perceived in all countries and not always an important principle for men and women. For a long time, education was oriented to prepare girls and boys for their different spheres in adult life. Today, equality is the goal, but it is not at all clear whether separation or coeducation is the better way to reach this goal.

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1. A Brief History Of Coeducation

The history of educational systems shows, for most countries, that especially for education beyond elementary levels, single-sex schools have been the preferred form, although coeducation was not un-usual. Financial restrictions in mass education forced coeducational schooling, but for ideological reasons, separation was preferred by the authorities. While this is mainly true for Europe, in the United States, soon after establishing public schools, coeducation became the norm. David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot describe the beginning as ‘smuggling in the girls’ which led to the adoption of coeducation by gradually moving from ‘why to why not’ (Tyack and Hansot 1992, p. 47). Even in secondary education, only 12 cities out of 628 reported that they had single-sex high schools at the end of the nineteenth century. The European secondary education was for boys only—especially in Germany; girls received secondary education only on a private basis and were not allowed to attend higher education at all. Prussian universities enrolled women, but not before 1908.

Democratic movements in all countries valued equality of education and therefore pledged for co-education. The debates emphasized the question of difference or similarity of women and men as human beings. While the assumption of similarity historically was associated with the preference for coeducation, those who postulated differences were divided in advocates and opponents to coeducation. The advocates thought coeducation would ensure that girls and boys themselves would make sure they behaved like girls and boys. The opponents feared that girls and boys together would encourage the loss of their engendered behavior.

In most European countries, the years between 1960 and 1980 brought big educational reforms, and co-education was one of those (Wilson 1991, p. 203)— although it was more of a side-effect of the reforms, and astonishingly, after the heated discussions in the first half of the twentieth century, a change nearly without debate. Efforts to establish ‘schools for all’ would not go along with separation. Poland has had equal opportunity programs since 1965; Sweden since the late 1960s, and most other European countries since the beginning 1970s, except for Greece (mid- 1970s) and Spain (1980s). Today all European countries have coeducation with the exception of Ireland, and to a lesser degree, in England and Wales. Some countries still have single-sex classes in some subjects, such as Physical Education and Crafts.

In the US, with its long tradition of coeducation, Title IX of the Educational Amendments in 1972 was the major legal tool in implementing equal education by stating that discrimination on the basis of sex is illegal in any educational program receiving federal funding. This already made clear that coeducation does not necessarily guarantee equality and the absence of sexism.

2. New Women’s Movement And Coeducation

‘Sexism’ was the new term to mark inequality for women and men in society. Evaluations of the educational reforms showed differences in attainment between the countries, between social groups and between gender. A close look at processes in the educational system reveals successes as well as failures: women participate much more in higher education but there is under-representation of young women in some educational fields, especially in vocational education and in science. At the same time, women’s self-confidence remains at lower levels than men’s. The new Women’s movement criticized the outcomes of coeducation, and showed that it put women at a disadvantage. Beginning in the 1980s, the critics started a new debate on coeducation. It provided a new research area, although one has to admit that the basis of the literature, even in the late 1990s was still rather thin; the reports are mostly ‘anecdotal’ (AAUW 1998).

3. Research About Coeducation And Single-Sex Schooling

Compilations of research show the advantages and disadvantages of coeducation. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published in 1986 a report on ‘Girls and Women in Education,’ and the American Association of Uni-versity Women (AAUW) released their report: ‘How Schools Shortchange Girls,’ in 1992. There are at least two fields in which research found relevant gender inequalities:

(a) Coeducation retains the gender-hierarchical division of the world. It strengthens gender-specific interests and seldom encourages thinking and behavior against the traditional gender-stereotypes. The school curriculum serves as a ‘hidden curriculum’ to ensure those processes.

(b) Classroom interaction processes show un-balanced communication structures. Dominance and forced attention for boys are tolerated, self-effacement by and disregard of girls remain unnoticed.

The central reason for this outcome lies in gender stereotypes and in the gender-division of labor: both are still to such a degree ‘normal’ that the ‘masculine dominance’ still remains effective, unquestioned by most people.

The hidden curriculum was a major theme in the OECD report, describing three forms of sex bias:

(a) Picture books, reading schemes and children’s literature are characterized by the lack of representation of women and female roles.

(b) The curriculum and textbooks in school tend to be either male-oriented or female-oriented rather than ‘bicultural.’

(c) The presentation of men and women in the curriculum shows a picture of the social world that is ‘more sexist than reality’ (OECD 1986, p. 75).

These results did force many of the political institutions responsible for the educational system to set up new criteria for school books and material. One can admit that there have been some changes, although the situation still has not changed radically.

Quite a lot of mostly qualitative studies deal with the interaction process. Maggie Wilson resumes their results:

Although teachers often deny that differential treatment of boys and girls exists in classrooms, case studies from Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Greece, West Germany and England and Wales chart the great amount of attention which teachers give young boys, albeit in the form of both praise and censure, and their overtly expressed preference for teaching boys, especially at the upper levels of school and in certain subject areas, such as in Science and Mathematics (Wilson 1991, p. 213).

Research in the USA is very much in line with these findings (Riordan 1990).

Florence Howe, and others, called on the ‘myth of coeducation.’ She wrote: ‘One of the central ideas of coeducation provides a central myth: that if women are admitted to men’s education and treated exactly as men are, then all problems of sexual equity will be solved’ (Howe 1984, p. X). The valuing of admittance as the only criteria for equality made us forget that there were other qualities in school education that proved to be unequal, e.g., the hidden curriculum and the interaction processes.

Although the AAUW report did not recommend single-sex schooling, it mentioned that research studies would indicate that girls often learn and perform better in same-sex work groups than in mixed-sex groupings (AAUW 1992, p. 130). This, together with many other publications, supported the remaining women colleges in the USA and also helped to keep, and even to start private girls’ schools. In Europe, especially in Germany, campaigns to enroll young women in science and technology subjects experimented with the separation of gender.

At the end of 1997, the AAUW organized a round table entitled ‘Separated by Sex—a critical look at single-sex education for girls,’ in order to resume the outcomes of the debate about coeducation and single-sex education since their 1992 report. The main results are consistent with research from other countries and could therefore be state-of-the-art for coeducation today:

(a) There is neither a significant correlation between the self-concept of students, nor the gender-stereotyping and coeducational or single-sex schooling.

(b) Students in single-sex schools rarely believe that mathematics and science are specifically male subjects, while students in coeducation schools believe this more often.

(c) These beliefs do not lead to differences in capacities between the students from the two types of schooling.

(d) Better results were found in the US single-sex schools only for ‘at-risk-students,’ especially Spanish-American girls from low socioeconomic families. The results are very small however, and they are due to the academic orientation of these schools.

(e) Sexism could be found everywhere, not the separation of gender or coeducation but mainly the awareness of teachers is responsible for non-sexist environments.

(f ) The majority of students wish to attend co-educational schools.

Altogether, the report called for more complexity in the research design as well as in the theorizing of gender. Both could help to deal with educational questions of gender equity more adequately than just criticizing coeducation and valuing separation.

4. Perspectives

Since the beginning of the new debate on coeducation, working with girls was added to working with boys about masculinity (Connell 1995), and, slowly but surely, is changing the coeducational classroom.

The research reports, as well as the practical experiences in different schools, show that single-sex education can help to deal with some of the problems of gender. More especially, those courses dealing with gender stereotypes; physical education programs that let girls and boys have new untypical experiences, can help them gain more self-respect and a better under-standing of gender-processes. But it cannot be done just by separating girls and boys, it requires awareness and cautious acting!

Coeducational settings do need more sensitive reflections about what is going on in classrooms. Barrie Thorne analyzed the ‘gender play’ in schools and she found: ‘Gender boundaries are episodic and ambigious, and the notion of ‘‘borderwork’’ should be coupled with a parallel term—such as ‘‘neutralization’’—for processes through which girls and boys (and adults who enter into their social relations) neutralize or undermine a sense of gender as division and opposition’ (Thorne 1993, p. 84).

Further research, gender studies in programs for teaching credentials as well as teacher training for more awareness of interaction processes dealing with gender questions, would help to make education gender-sensitive and valuable for both girls and boys.


  1. American Association of University Women Educational Foundation 1992 How Schools Shortchange Girls. A Study of Major Findings on Girls and Education. Marlowe, New York
  2. American Association of University Women Educational Foundation 1998 Separated by Sex—a Critical Look at Single-sex Education for Girls. Washington, DC
  3. Connell R W 1995 Masculinities. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  4. Diller A, Houston B, Morgan K P, Ayim M 1996 The Gender Question in Education. Westview Press, Boulder, CO
  5. Eder D, Evans C C, Parker S 1995 School Talk. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ
  6. Faulstich-Wieland H 1991 Koedukation—enttauschte Hoff-nungen? [Coeducation—disappointed hopes?] Wissenschaft-liche Buchgesellschft, Darmstadt, Germany
  7. Faulstich-Wieland H, Horstkemper M 1995 ‘Trennt uns bitte, bitte nicht!’. Koedukation aus Madchen-und Jungensicht. [‘Please don’t separate us!’ Coeducation as Girls and Boys see it]. Leske and Budrich, Opladen, Germany
  8. Howe F 1984 Myths of Coeducation. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN
  9. OECD 1986 Girls and Women in Education. A Cross-national Study of Sex Inequalities in Upbringing and in Schools and Colleges. Paris
  10. Riordan C 1990 Girls and Boys in School. Together or Separate? Teachers College, Columbia University, New York
  11. Thorne B 1993 Gender Play. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ
  12. Tyack D, Hansot E 1992 Learning Together. A History of Coeducation in American Public Schools. Russell Sage Foundation, New York
  13. Wilson M (ed.) 1991 Girls and Young Women in Education. A European Perspective. Pergamon Press, Oxford, UK
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