NEWS 2011

Are Single-Sex Schools Better at Educating Students


Jackson Students

Does being in an all-male or all-female school lead to better education outcomes? Proponents of single-sex education argue that it does because boys and girls learn differently and thus benefit from being in separate classes.

Amendments to Title IX regulations banning sex discrimination in education have made it easier to provide single-sex education in the United States since 2006. Since then, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, among others, have experimented with single-sex education. Yet little credible evidence exists on how such schools affect achievement.

Enter IPR labor economist Kirabo Jackson. Unlike the thousands of previous studies on the topic, his is the first to use a quasi-experimental design on a unique data set from Trinidad and Tobago.

What makes this tiny Caribbean republic so interesting is that almost all of its 123 secondary schools, including the most selective, are public and approximately one-quarter of the secondary schools are single-sex. In contrast, most single-sex schools in the United States are private.

“So we really can make apples-to-apples comparisons,” Jackson said.

Jackson compares scores from two nationwide tests to evaluate outcomes. The first, the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA), is taken in the final year of primary school, the equivalent of U.S. fifth grade. Getting into a secondary school, which runs from sixth to tenth grade, is competitive. The Ministry of Education uses an algorithm to assign students to one of their top secondary school choices based on their SEA scores. This results in an assignment to a school, eliminating bias due to self-selection.

Jackson tracked students’ scores on the second national test taken in students’ final year of secondary school.

Jackson

Kirabo Jackson 

In naive comparisons, students with similar incoming characteristics at single-sex schools appeared to perform better on the second exam. However, Jackson notes it was due to being admitted to a preferred school rather than a single-sex school per se. Once he accounted for this, there was no effect on achievement for more than 85 percent of students.

Only one subset of students did show improvement. “Girls with strong preferences for single-sex schools enjoy large benefits,” Jackson said. These girls, however, were not more likely to take math and science courses as many might expect.

Jackson cautions policymakers to be skeptical in their reading of single-sex education studies that use only observational data. Creating more single-sex classes and schools, he notes, will likely have little benefit in terms of increasing overall academic achievement.

Jackson, K. 2012. Single-sex schools, student achievement, and course selection: Evidence from rule-based student assignments in Trinidad and Tobago. Journal of Public Economics 96(1-2): 173-87.