There’s no definitive answer as to which is better: coed or single-sex education.
Both types of schools present unique advantages and disadvantages, but it really comes down to what is best for each individual child. Even within a family, a single-sex school may be great for one kid, but prove difficult for another.
A review of relevant studies compiled by the psychology department at UCLA is woefully inconclusive, and corroborates the uncertainty as to whether coeducational or single-sex schools are better. The published report states that “formal research findings” do not indicate empirical advantages to either approach.
If you’re wondering whether an all-boys or all-girls school is the right choice for your child, you’ll want to think about her learning style, her academic and social strengths and weaknesses, and her educational goals. You should evaluate your options on a school-by-school basis and be sure not to write off any group of schools categorically.
Having said all this, here are a few questions to ask yourself if you’re considering these options for your kid.
1. What type of student is she?
Teachers at some single-sex schools may receive training specifically geared toward instructing students of one gender, but it’s worth remembering that not all boys learn the same ways as all other boys. And, of course, not all girls learn the same ways as all other girls.
Along these same lines, a doctoral thesis published by the Information Centre for Gender Research in Norway points out that it may be more helpful to look at students as individual learners rather than dividing them along strict gender lines. In this study, students classified themselves into categories like “hardworking,” “boisterous,” and “quiet.” Overall, hardworking students did better in school than other types of students — so they’d likely do well in either a coed or a single-sex school.
Outspoken or disruptive students (those in the boisterous category), on the other hand, may benefit from teachers who are trained to address a classroom full of rambunctious learners. As you might guess, however, a quiet boy who doesn’t disrupt class may not benefit from this sort of environment.
According to the report, students who are passive in the classroom may be more comfortable speaking up in single-sex settings, which could be very beneficial, leading perhaps to increased confidence in other spaces. But assertive female students (40 percent of boisterous kids in the Norway study were girls) may not necessarily gain anything from teaching directed toward stereotypically reserved girls.
2. What are your child’s strengths and weaknesses?
Single-sex schools may provide a way to mitigate gender disparities in areas in which boys or girls may be assumed to excel (based on cultural stereotypes).
All-girls schools may alleviate the pressure and insecurity of not performing as well as boys in areas like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, and may prevent implicit biases from teachers from interfering with instruction. Similarly, all-boys schools may be great environments in which to foster young men’s interests in the arts. (As mentioned above, these are cultural stereotypes, but they’re persistent ones.)
If your child is already a strong student in a particular area, though, a single-sex classroom may not make a difference in her academic achievement. As a female student in a coed high school, I never had a problem speaking up in any classes, and never felt insecure compared to the boys. But, of course, that’s only my experience; it’s not hard to imagine a shy student’s discomfort making a claim or asking a question in a room full of energetic and loud classmates — regardless of their sex.
While I was not a student who struggled in math, I did notice that my advanced math classes were mostly made up of boys, whereas my classes overall included a slightly more pronounced female majority. This disparity didn’t bother me as a student, but it’s clear to me looking back that a single-sex math classroom could be helpful for a young woman who isn’t confident in a given subject.
3. What are your child’s educational priorities?
Of course you want your child to excel academically, but getting into a great college is not the only benefit students stand to gain from a solid education. Developing leadership abilities, honing interests that may lead to future careers, and building social skills are also important parts of going to school.
If you are looking for an academically rigorous school, it’s worth bearing in mind that most single-sex schools tend to be private. And private schools, though many exceptions to this exist, are often more demanding than public schools.
Many proponents of single-sex schools argue that they can provide kids with more leadership and collaboration experience than their coed counterparts. This may be due to increased feelings of collegiality in the absence of members of the opposite sex.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to single-sex schools that critics point out is that students may suffer in terms of developing social skills. The same UCLA review indicated that while students in an all-boys or all-girls school may benefit from working cooperatively with peers, it could make the transition into a coed environment harder. Both in college and in the workforce, men and women interact every day, both in formal settings — in an office or in classes — and socially.
Students also miss out on diversity in the classroom in single-sex environments. The presence of multiple gender perspectives in discussions makes classes richer, more productive, more provocative, and more inclusive.
Parents wishing for their kids to learn in an environment free from gender stereotypes may find themselves struggling to find a definitive answer. Some argue that single-sex schools force kids into prescribed roles, while others say the assuming of typical gender roles actually occurs when peers of the opposite sex are also present. There is nothing that holds true across the board when it comes to concerns about stereotypes.
Personal interests may sway a student to go to a particular school, too, like a specific internship program, or AP and honors class offerings. A young musician, for instance, might prefer a single-sex school with an excellent music program over a coed school with a less robust arts program. This may be enough to sway her in the direction of a single-sex school, even if she hadn’t previously considered one.
4. Does your child have a preference?
If you daughter thinks going to an all-girls school would be best for her, then she may be happier there and more motivated to flourish. The same can be said of a student more interested in a coed school.
I worked as a nanny for two years for a young boy and girl. Their father traveled a fair amount, so the son spent large swaths of time with his mother, his sister, his grandmother, and me. He also had a female public school teacher that year.
One of his reasons for wanting to go to an all-boys school, as he said in his admissions interview, was because he was “surrounded by women” on a daily basis. He thought it would be nice to have more interaction with boys. He got into the school and has done quite well there.
This particular boy excelled in English, especially creative writing. His sister, however, attends a competitive coed school where she shines in all subjects, but especially math. At risk of being repetitive, it all depends on the needs of each individual student.
5. Is attending a single-sex school feasible?
Don’t forget to factor in tuition costs and potential financial aid packages, accessibility, and school resources when making a decision. If you’ve weighed your options and don’t feel strongly either way, you might consider a single-sex school because it is nearby. But if the nearest such school is an hour-and-a-half ride away and buses aren’t available, it may not be worth the added stress.
What’s best for one student is not necessarily best for all. The crucial thing is to talk through the options with your child and to make the choice that feels right for your family.
Check out schools near you using the Noodle search tool, which allows you to find local options based on what matters most to you — whether you're looking for a co-ed, single-sex, or another education option altogether.