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Value of Single-Sex Classes Questioned as Florida Considers Adding More

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A review of existing research found that single-sex classrooms offer no significant social or educational benefits to students, according to a study published this week in the Psychological Bulletin.

The study was released the same week that a Florida House panel approved a bill that would open enrollment to schools' optional single-sex classes to all students within a district, even those not living within that school's attendance zone. Another Florida bill would require the state's education department to pilot single-sex schools in some larger districts.

Supporters of single-sex schools say they allow teachers to teach in a way that fits best with the learning styles of boys or girls, and that the classes allow children to ignore certain social pressures. Single-sex classrooms also eliminate some classroom-management issues, giving teachers more time to focus on lessons, advocates say.

But research on the effectiveness of the single-sex approach has offered conflicting results. Studies that show great academic benefits of the single-sex approach often lack a control element, said Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who conducted the study released this week.

"The problem is that there are lots of really poor quality studies, but also lots of really good ones, and they've never been separated out before," Hyde said in an interview published on the university's website. "Especially in the United States, parents who choose single-sex schooling, on average, have more money and more education, which all predict performance. So if you find that the students are performing better, you don't know if it's due to the single-sex education or the fact that they started out with these advantages."

To isolate the effects of separating the sexes, Hyde and the study's co-authors reviewed 184 studies, representing the testing of 1.6 million students in grades K-12 from 21 countries, for outcomes like science and math performance, educational attitudes and aspirations, self-concept and gender stereotyping. They then focused on 57 studies that corrected for factors like parental education and family income and found little benefit to the approach, Hyde said.

"There is a mountain of research in social psychology showing that segregation by race or gender feeds stereotypes, and that's not what we want. The adult world is an integrated world, in the workplace and in the family, and the best thing we can do is provide that environment for children in school as we prepare them for adulthood."

Supporters and opponents of single-sex schooling are passionate and defensive of their approaches. It's worth mentioning that Hyde's faculty profile includes a link to the American Council for Coeducational Schooling, which advocates for abandoning the single-sex approach. 

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