One St. Louis–area school is set to give gender-divided math and science classes a try this fall. Northeast Middle School will start having separate math and science classrooms for boys and girls in the coming school year. According to Principal Jennifer Sebold, the move could help students fully realize their talents. “We felt like giving separate space for boys and girls allows them to really explore their brilliance and figure out who they are as a learner and build confidence,” Sebold told local NBC affiliate KSDK. Former teacher and guidance counselor Nikki Goldfeder told KSDK, “It’s really the perfect time to really break apart what these narratives that we are so socialized to believe [are] and to allow students to figure out for themselves who they want to be.
Sebold was careful to emphasize that these gender-divided classes are optional.
Parents still have the option to keep their children in coed math and science classes. Math teacher Greg Herndon emphasized, “The curriculum is not changing and the expectations aren’t changing, but the path to get there is going to have some different steps I think along the way.”
On the national scale, the merits of same-gender classrooms are an ongoing conversation.
Supporters of the move toward separating boys and girls say that advantages include less distraction—especially for hormone-addled teens—and less gender intensification, which is defined as “increased pressure to conform to culturally sanctioned gender roles during adolescence.” Additionally, proponents say that splitting the genders allows educators to tailor instruction to account for boys’ and girls’ different learning styles. Jefferson Leadership Academies in Long Beach, California, made headlines in 1999 when it became the nation’s first public middle school to have gender-specific classes, crediting the decision to research showing that girls had better outcomes in math and science in all-girls settings such as all-girls schools. In 2007, however, the school elected to reverse its same-gender curriculum because of resulting difficulties in scheduling and, even more telling, poor test scores. Those who opposed separate boys’ and girls’ classes were unsurprised, citing a lack of concrete evidence that splitting up the genders resulted in improved achievement. As The New Yorker‘s Margaret Talbot wrote in a 2012 piece, “The evidence wasn’t very good [in the ’90s] for a gap between the genders’ learning styles so significant that it would mandate separate instruction, and it hasn’t gotten any better.” Detractors also argue that same-gender classrooms could make it difficult for students to assimilate to a gender-mixed workforce or college setting, possibly causing a difficult adjustment period.
While transitioning to gender-specific classrooms may seem like a new development, it’s not without historical precedent.
Before the trend toward coeducational schools in 19th century, single-gender schools were the norm. The difference, however, is the reason for the separation. Whereas earlier reasons for single-sex educational settings were based on tradition and religion, contemporary reasons for separation revolve around students’ educational outcomes. Whether single-gender classrooms are actually beneficial to students, though, is still a question without a definitive answer.