Single-Gender Classrooms

In South Carolina, schools flock to offer separate classes with promising early results for students by JIM REX AND DAVID CHADWELL

Public schools are offering more choices because educators increasingly have come to believe that a broader instructional menu brings positive results for everyone involved. The days of parents simply signing up their children at the neighborhood school for a one-size-fits-all curriculum are nearly over.

In South Carolina, parents in high-choice school districts can enroll their children today in academic magnet schools, charter schools, Montessori programs and schools with curricula that emphasize the arts, technology or the environment.

Jim Rex and David ChadwellJim Rex (right) is the state superintendent of education in South Carolina. David Chadwell coordinates single-gender programs for the South Carolina Department of Education.

To offer even more options, the South Carolina General Assembly is building broad bipartisan support for legislation requiring all districts to develop instructional options for students. The catalyst for this legislation was a coordinated push by public school educators.

Under this growing umbrella of public school choice, single-gender classes are spreading across the state. Although single-gender education is not a new idea, it exists today in a new format based on new knowledge and spurred by a new sense of urgency.

An explosion of research related to gender is exploring the possibility of gender differences in learning styles between male and female students. While new data continue to emerge, teachers can use current information to differentiate instruction within their classrooms. Rather than limiting students because of their sex, teachers in all classrooms — whether co-ed or single-gender — can implement lessons that better meet the needs of students.

Legal Status
Performance discrepancies between boys and girls are cause for serious concern. In South Carolina, as in many states, there are gender-based performance gaps. We see it most clearly in the percentages of boys and girls in grades 3 through 8 who have scored below basic competency in English language arts and mathematics on our annual state assessment over the last four years. Analyzing these gender gaps is spurring educators to consider new options.

Some may question the legal status of instructional strategies that separate boys and girls. In 1972, Title IX established that sex discrimination in schools was illegal. But No Child Left Behind revived the idea of single-sex education, and in October 2006, federal regulations established the requirements for legally permissible single-sex schools and classes within the public education system. (See related story, page 30.)

Programs organized by gender must be based on the attainment of an educational objective, be completely voluntary, be implemented in an even-handed manner, be substantially equal for boys and girls, and be reviewed every two years. In addition, a co-ed option in identical classes must be available.

Following these guidelines ensures that single-gender education is not merely a throwback to the days of sex discrimination and limited educational opportunities. Single-gender classes should not be attempted without a thorough understanding of federal regulations.

Multiple Formats
In South Carolina, single-gender education has been a win-win-win choice. It has invigorated teachers, engaged students and involved parents.

A unique feature of single-gender education is that it can be implemented quickly, in various formats and at a low cost. This helps to explain its rapid expansion in South Carolina from approximately 70 schools in 2007 to more than 200 in 2008. We expect the 2009-10 school year to open with single-gender classes in at least 230 schools in rural, suburban and urban districts.

Taylors Elementary School Boys ClassTaylors Elementary School in Greenville, S.C., offers single-gender classes to pupils in 1st through 5th grades.

In the time of a calendar year (or shorter for some communities), the leadership in a school can examine performance data to identify the needs for boys and girls, select the appropriate grade levels and subjects for single-gender classes, train teachers, involve parents, and design and implement a program.

Educators in the local school determine how single-gender classes can complement current offerings. Single-gender classes need not replace ongoing instructional strategies, but they can be a catalyst for engaging students by altering the structure of classes and student dynamics. In fact, survey responses from students in single-gender classes point to their increased participation within class as well as their increased willingness to try new learning activities.

Some schools offer single-gender classes in pre-kindergarten, others in grades K-2 or in grades 1-5. Middle schools may offer single-gender classes in 6th grade only or in grades 6-8. Some schools target core academic areas like English language arts, math and science. High schools typically offer single-gender classes in 9th grade and in courses requiring state-mandated testing.

Teacher interest often drives the introduction of single-gender classes, and growing interest from parents also is pushing more schools and districts as they hear the positive news about existing programs.

Productive Partnership
Successful implementation of single-gender programs comes from a close partnership among the South Carolina Department of Education, local schools and parents. While several states have school choice or innovation offices, only South Carolina employs a statewide coordinator for single-gender initiatives whose sole function is to support schools in creating, implementing and sustaining single-gender programs. Schools have easy access to a “go-to” person for information, training and on-site support.

The partnership between our agency and South Carolina schools begins with the attitude that we will do anything we can to support local educators. There is no required model, template or set program guide for schools. This puts the onus on the individual school or district to determine whether single-gender would be a good fit, to select the best format and to take responsibility for the program’s success.

The experience at Taylors Elementary School in Greenville, S.C., was pretty typical. The principal and a group of teachers attended a state-run training session, then discussed the idea during follow-up faculty meetings. Initially, the school expected to offer a single-gender option in grades 3-5, but parent feedback was so positive and teachers were so committed that the school decided to offer single-gender classes for grades 1-5. A full-day meeting of teachers and state agency personnel took place in the spring, allowing the program to open last August with a waiting list.

Complying With Single-Sex Education Regulations by MAREE SNEED

Single-sex schools and classrooms received authorization from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, but it wasn’t until Oct. 26, 2006, that the federal government published the regulations governing same-gender K-12 education programs.

read more

The state education agency serves as a resource, offering statewide workshops on creating single-gender programs and training sessions, and visiting schools to provide staff with professional development in gender-related strategies for the classroom.

Upon request, we also will visit individual classrooms to provide feedback to teachers. We assist schools in preparing for parent meetings to explain what single-gender education is and how it can work. We send newsletters every month, assist in gathering data and help with online recertification credit courses.

While there are no state-level regulations, we make recommendations about communicating with parents, training teachers and providing continuous professional development.

An annual conference on single-gender education takes place every March. This “Teacher-to-Teacher” conference highlights our belief that teachers drive and sustain single-gender education. Teachers who work in single-gender classrooms present instructional strategies to their colleagues from across the state and, increasingly, the nation.

At this year’s conference, more than 50 teachers presented to an audience of nearly 300 teachers. Teachers network with others who teach at the same grade level or content area.

Providing forums for teachers to rise as leaders and professionals keeps single-gender education as a grassroots initiative rather than a state mandate. Our agency, meanwhile, serves as a resource and ally rather than an evaluator and regulator. We operate as a hub where ideas flow in through e-mails, site visits, conferences and research, and ideas flow out again via training programs, newsletters, site visits and webinars. In June, we created the first single-gender advisory committee of educators from across the state.

Taylors Elementary School Boys PlayingAn all-boys classroom in Taylors Elementary School in Greenville, S.C.

Early Results

At least 30 new single-gender programs are expected to start this fall, and many existing programs plan to expand. Only five schools are eliminating their single-gender programs, all of them doing so because they are unable to offer a coed choice due to budget and staffing cuts. Offering a coed option is required by federal regulations.

Overall, South Carolina schools are reporting increased academic performance and decreased disciplinary issues for boys and girls in single-gender classes.

Taylors Elementary School in Greenville reported a drop in discipline referrals from 0.36 referrals per student in 2007-08 to 0.06 referrals per student in 2008-09.

Whittemore Park Middle School in Conway, S.C., reported students in 7th grade, which offered single-gender classes for the first time last year, had only 4 F’s compared to more than 50 F’s during a comparable time frame the previous school year.

Geiger Elementary School in Fairfield County, S.C., reported an increase in the percentage of 5th-graders scoring at proficient or advanced levels on state assessments. Boys improved in math from 16.5 percent proficient/advanced in coed classes to 31.3 percent in single-gender classes. Girls in single-gender classrooms increased their proficient/advanced level in reading from 19 percent to 42 percent.

Kingstree Junior High in Williamsburg County, S.C., reported two years of academic gains after starting to use single-gender instruction. The percentage of 7th-grade males scoring below basic on the state tests dropped from 55 percent in 2006 (the last year with only coed classrooms) to 30 percent in 2008. Girls in 7th grade improved from 25 percent below basic to only 11 percent over the same period.

Parent Satisfaction
A survey of parents, students and teachers involved in single-gender education across the state has given us an annual snapshot of the perception of each group. An overwhelming 76 percent of parents are satisfied with the implementation of the single-gender program at their school. More than two-thirds of the parents indicate they see increases in their child’s self-confidence, independ-ence and self-efficacy.

We’re Equalizing Learning for Boys and Girls by STEPHEN W. HEFNER

A student in the first graduating class of the single-gender magnet at Dent Middle School in Richland School District Two in Columbia, S.C., noticed something amiss once she started her classes in high school. “I didn’t understand why none of the other girls were raising their hands,” she said. “I had my hand raised all the time.”

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Successful implementation involves many factors. The top three are:
•  training for teachers to better understand how gender can influence learning and supporting teachers throughout the year as they reflect on their practice; 

•  communicating with parents so they understand the reasoning behind the program enough to make informed decisions; and 

•  analyzing data in multiple formats to determine the need for and impact of single-gender classes.

Educators in classrooms across South Carolina have been amazed by the impact of single-gender programs. Nurtured over time, that success can be a strong step toward our goal of offering a broader range of instructional choices that engage parents and students and meet the individual needs and interests of every child.

Additional Resources

Jim Rex and David Chadwell believe these resources can be useful to school leaders who are intereed in single-gender instruction:

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Jim Rex is the state superintendent of education in South -Carolina. E-mail: info@ed.sc.gov. David Chadwell is coordinator of single-gender programs at the South Carolina Department of Education in Columbia, S.C.