Spotlight

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.”

Charlene Herring, the school district’s chief academic officer, noticed a similar phenomenon. When she walked into a single-gender math class at Dent Middle, she watched a girl at the SMART Board teaching algebra to her classmates, all girls. She peeked into a boys’ classroom down the hall and observed them working on the same problems in a completely different manner.

Stephen HefnerStephen Hefner


Herring, a former elementary school principal, reported her findings with pride: Boys and girls appeared interested and engaged in their learning in separate rooms.

Favorable Impressions
Therein lies the promise of single-gender education, an initiative that as superintendent I have championed and expanded in Richland School District Two since 2003. It’s one of 26 magnet programs we’ve developed to address the specific needs of students. We want students who are hungry for learning and unabashed in their quest for excellence.

While no education model alone will fit everyone, single-gender instruction has proven to be a valuable tool. This year we received more applicants to our magnet, known as TWO Academies, than in any year prior.

No consistent empirical evidence proves that single-gender classes improve learning results, but we know from students, teachers and parents that they have benefits. Girls who were once shy and self-conscious 6th graders grow into confident and bold 9th graders. Boys are more focused and feel more connected with lessons taught in ways that naturally appeal to them.

These breakthroughs should not be attributed simply to putting girls in one class and boys in another. I believe the basic and most essential building block of our public school system is the individual classroom, and the single most important individual on our staff is the classroom teacher. Providing appropriate training for teachers before launching a single-gender program is essential.

What makes the whole concept work is doing something differently. Teaching styles must be adjusted to learning styles. While it may seem like common sense to assign men to teach boys and women to teach girls, it’s not that simple.

Unquestionably, we are on to something great with single-gender classes. As interest has grown, so have the pockets of all-boy and all-girl classes throughout the district. What started at the middle school level has grown in popularity at our elementary schools. Our goal is to capitalize on this interest across all grade levels.

What I’ve Learned
Key things I’ve learned about single-gender education:

•  Girls are attracted to it more than boys.
Middle school girls seem more receptive to single-gender classes, especially in math and science. Class time for these subjects is often dominated by boys. Research shows some girls may “dumb down” their scholastic performances to maintain their popularity and not seem what they consider “too smart.”

The parents who first suggested single-gender classes in Richland Two were most interested in girls-only classes. While we have found girls may fare better in science and math classes without the distraction of boys, the same is true of boys in language arts, which in mixed-gender environments is sometimes viewed as a more feminine subject. 

•  High school students just aren’t that interested. In elementary and middle school, parents still are in control and the decisions at this level are often made with or without the concurrence of their children. High school is different. High school students don’t want to be seen as separate or different from other students. So even if parents like the idea, it won’t work if the student doesn’t buy into it. 

•  Transportation drives success. Because our district is geographically large, we are unable to provide transportation to parents who opt for magnet programs outside their attendance zone. Thus, many of our students are transported to and from school daily by parents. It is many of these students who achieve the highest levels at our magnet programs.

We believe the students and parents are talking about school and course assignments on those rides to and from school. Because students are not static objects and are affected by a barrage of variables, pinpointing exactly what is responsible for success is difficult. Is it the increased parental involvement, the absence of the opposite sex, or trained and prepared teachers? There’s no easy answer.

It appears that parents who care enough to do the research and enroll their children in this magnet program are more invested and involved, and students perform better. 

•  Great for some but not for everyone.Teachers across the district echo the sentiment that single-gender classes can improve learning outcomes for some students but not all. They agree no single practice will ever maximize the potential of all students, and I cannot overstate the importance of professional development and support for teachers.

Knowing what works best for children is the mark of a prepared, caring professional. Each time educators test a new tactic, people want to know, “Is this it?” But we know there isn’t a single answer for effective learning. The truth is single-gender classes (like many strategies) can improve learning outcomes for some students, but not for all.

Stephen Hefner is superintendent of Richland School District Two in Columbia, S.C. E-mail: shefner@richland2.org. Contributing to this article were Ishmael B. Tate and Theresa L. Riley.