March 6, 2013 by

Why Coeducation Matters

ASCD13 Coeducation Session Preview
ASCD’s 68th Annual Conference and Exhibit Show features more than 400 sessions on some of the most important topics in education. Built on the theme, “Learning: Our Story. Our Time. Our Future.,” the Annual Conference and Exhibit Show will be held March 16–18, at McCormick Place in Chicago, Ill., and will inform, engage, help, and challenge educators from across the globe to better support student success. Below we hear from four Annual Conference presenters—Lise Eliot, Rebecca Bigler, Philip Rodkin, and Janet Hyde—whose interactive session, “Why Coeducation Matters and How to Make it Better,” will be held on Monday, March, 18, 2013, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.

Today’s boys and girls will interact more as adults compared to any prior generation, but many schools are not using the opportunity of coeducation to teach them to respect, support, collaborate, and compete with each other. As researchers from across the spectrum of brain and behavioral development, we believe that boys and girls have much to learn from each other. By examining students’ and teachers’ assumptions about boys and girls and working to break down the barriers between them, coeducational schools can do more to reduce gender gaps, improve classroom management, and raise the achievement of all students.

In spite of its long history in the United States, coeducation has come under attack in recent years. Concerned about racial and gender achievement gaps (e.g., too few men in college and too few women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields), some reformers argue that coeducation is the problem, claiming that it fails to address biologically based learning differences between the genders, promotes heterosexual distraction and discipline problems, or fosters sexism and gender stereotyping. Facilitated by the 2006 revision of Title IX, which deliberately encouraged more experimentation with gender segregation, the number of single-sex schools or single-sex classrooms within coeducational public schools has risen dramatically in recent years, often to widespread acclaim in the local and national media.

However, actual data on student performance in mixed- versus single-sex environments does not merit such enthusiasm. The implementation of single-sex schooling alone fails to increase academic achievement or produce positive social outcomes. Nor are boys and girls as dramatically different as many single-sex schooling proponents maintain. Research shows that the range of abilities and learning styles is much wider within groups of girls or boys than between the average of either group. So the use of gender to assign learning conditions and curricula is pretty much guaranteed to be inaccurate for many students.

Instead, we advocate educational approaches that rely on knowledge about individual students as opposed to gender stereotypes, especially those approaches that foster greater as opposed to lesser interaction across genders. Such practices are far likelier to meet the needs of a broad range of students.

Drawing on research from sibling studies, we see the classroom as the perfect setting for boys and girls to learn to work together in a supervised, purposeful manner. And, to the extent that sexism remains a problem for both boys and girls, the mixed-sex classroom is also the best environment for examining students’ implicit assumptions about gender and consciously working to end harmful stereotyping and gender-based bullying. After all, what good is empowering one or the other sex in isolation, if students don’t learn to express their confidence, leadership, and egalitarian ideals in the same gender-integrated world they will be joining as adults?

Boys and girls both benefit from coeducation. Students are happier in mixed-sex, compared to single-sex schools—less anxious and often better buffered from the hazing and cliquishness that typify child and adolescent social competition. Recent research has found that that classrooms with a more egalitarian social structure and more cross-gender friendships experience reduced levels of aggression and bullying. Our session will offer concrete strategies for creating classrooms that foster such egalitarian relationships, value gender equity, and maximize the academic and social skills of all children.

In our progress toward greater inclusion and diversity in classrooms, gender is perhaps the last holdout, the one trait that some teachers still feel comfortable using to characterize and differentiate individual learners. But so called gender-based learning belies the real findings on diversity within each gender, and ultimately shortchanges students both socially and intellectually.

We invite ASCD members to join us at our session, “Why Coeducation Matters,” in which we will tackle important concerns about gender in education and share new ideas for using mixed-sex instruction to raise achievement and prepare both genders for their future lives and work together.

Lise Eliot is associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University.

Rebecca Bigler is professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas.

Philip Rodkin is associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois.

Janet Hyde is a Helen Thompson Woolley professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin.