Math and science: do single-sex classrooms support better outcomes?

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There was a noted achievement gap between boys and girls in certain academic disciplines long before "Teen Talk Barbie" created an uproar for her 1992 verbal gaffe "math class is tough!" Since then, the acronym STEM has become a regular fixture of edu-speak. Standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, women have shrunk the gap in these fields in recent years. Still, they represent half the workforce, yet only a quarter of the workers in these traditionally higher-paying fields.

A group of University of Pennsylvania researchers traveled to South Korea to observe the results of their single-sex and coed educational systems, publishing their results in October 2012 in the journal "Demography." For nearly 40 years, South Korean public school students have been randomly assigned to single sex or coed classrooms. There is no opt-out option for these assignments, and other variables remain equal. The findings were not surprising: both boys and girls in single-sex classrooms attended four-year colleges at a higher rate than did their contemporaries in co-ed classrooms.

Why? Sometimes the best explanation is the simplest one: it may just be that less members of the opposite sex=less distraction=better academic outcomes.

And while single-sex classrooms did lead to better results for girls in STEM courses, what was even more surprising is that the results were even better for boys.  That's right—removing the girls from the classrooms had an even more beneficial effect on the boys' scores and outcomes, a surprising result given that the STEM deferential may be one of the key reasons why all-girls schools are vanishing at a slower rate than their all-boys counterparts.

The National Association for Choice in Education does raise one concern with the article: that one classroom structure is inherently better than another. According to the NACE, "We believe that premise is fundamentally mistaken. The single-gender format is better for some students, and coed is better for others."

Ultimately each student is unique, and parents need to make the best decision for each of their children. If you want to look further into single-sex education in Rhode Island, there are three options: Bishop Hendricken (boys); or Lincoln School and St. Mary Academy Bay View (girls).

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