Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

SPRING 2012

Kirabo Jackson

Do Single-Sex Schools Improve Learning?

Advocates say single-sex schools can address the different ways boys and girls learn, offer fewer distractions and provide less pressure for boys and girls to select certain courses. The issue is especially timely because legislation passed in 2006 makes it easier to provide single-sex education in the United States.

Since little solid evidence exists on how single-sex schooling affects achievement, assistant professor Kirabo Jackson set out to study the question.

He used unique data from Trinidad and Tobago, where in contrast to the United States almost all single-sex schools are public. “So we really can make apples-to-apples comparisons,” Jackson notes.

In simple comparisons of students with similar characteristics, Jackson finds that attending a single-sex school is associated with better educational outcomes. This evaluation is based on comparing scores from two nationwide tests, taken in fifth and 10th grades.

However, deeper investigation reveals that the positive outcomes are largely due to being admitted to a preferred school rather than being at a single-sex school. Once he accounts for this factor, there is no effect on achievement for more than 85 percent of students.

Only one group of students does show improvement. “Girls with strong preferences for single-sex schools enjoy large benefits,” concludes Jackson, who plans to follow up with more research.

‘Ghetto,' ‘Thug' or ‘Aggie' How Gender Influences School Experiences


By Lisa Stein
‘ghetto,’ ‘thug’ or ‘aggie’ How Gender Influences School Experiences

Simone Ispa-Landa, who joined the SESP faculty in September, studies inequality in education from a variety of perspectives. She was not surprised, therefore, when her research found that inner-city African American students who were bused to affluent suburban schools faced bias and stereotyping.

What did shock Ispa-Landa was how much gender affected the students' reception at suburban schools. While suburban students admired the boys and included them in their social networks and cliques, they generally excluded the girls.

The Gender Trap

inner-city student

“My study showed that racial integration is very gendered,” asserts Ispa-Landa, assistant professor of human development and social policy. “In these affluent suburbs the students were being asked to play a role — like ‘gangster' or ‘thug' — that plays on negative stereotypes but for the boys is also seen as cool or sexy. The boys were perceived as attractive to the suburban kids, as they symbolized rebellion and non-mainstream culture. They were still stereotyped along some negative lines, but socially they were included — especially when they played out the expected ‘role.'”

In contrast, the suburban students considered the African American girls loud and obnoxious, often labeling them as “ghetto.” While the boys were invited to parties and sleepovers, for example, the girls typically were not.

In writing her dissertation at Harvard University, Ispa-Landa worked with an urban-to-suburban racial desegregation program called Diversify (a pseudonym). For her study Ispa-Landa chose a group of students who were bused from poor and working-class urban neighborhoods to some of the city's wealthiest suburbs, where the median household income hovers around $100,000, rather than other groups of students who were sent to less affluent suburbs.

“I wanted to look at the program in an area of concentrated affluence,” she notes. “There are plenty of studies of communities that concentrate on poverty, but not as many that look at affluence. My research design maximizes the shock, the difference between environments. This study showed results in high relief.”

Male-Female Stereotypes

Although previous studies examined racial differences in gender performance in schools, most focused exclusively on either males or females. Ispa-Landa compared the consequences of gender definitions for both boys and girls within the same environment. She was also the first qualitative researcher to use a comparative research design to examine bused students' experiences with those of a group of similar peers who were waitlisted for the program.

For the parts of her work that focus on the Diversify students' experiences in affluent suburbia, Ispa-Landa conducted interviews and ethnographic observations with Diversify and suburban students in grades 8 through 10, as well as with Diversify coordinators. Central to Ispa-Landa's findings is the commonly held sociological view that elite high school cultures are often dominated by a masculinity based on athleticism, aggression and the power to attract girls.

This male-dominated culture requires a complementary femininity of compliance, physical vulnerability and submission in order to exist — any behavior to the contrary threatens the social order. “It seems the boys were popular because they embodied the traits that contribute to an idealized relationship between masculinity and femininity,” Ispa-Landa posits.

Ispa-Landa found that the Diversify girls did not adhere to the suburban social code. For example, they were not as submissive as the white girls and were more likely to speak out against racially insensitive remarks and gestures. Hence, the girls were seen as “contaminating” the school's culture by threatening the system of male dominance.

Both students and coordinators commented on the disparate treatment the girls received. One African American boy (who happened to be dating a white suburban girl) admitted that neither the Diversify nor the suburban boys had an interest in dating the African American girls because they had “attitudes.” Other Diversify boys said that their female counterparts were “aggie” (aggravated), “hard to handle” or “ghetto,” an insult reserved solely for girls.

Experiences Opposite as Black and White

So dissimilar were the Diversify male and female students’ experiences in the wealthy suburbs, in fact, that Ispa-Landa compared their experiences this way: “It’s like the difference between going to Canada and staying in a hotel versus staying with a family who knows all the local places.”

The Diversify girls learned that the suburban kids had no concept of an African American middle class; all the Diversify students were seen as poor and troubled, which came as something of a shock to those who lived in middle-class neighborhoods. Diversify girls who had consciously chosen to be “respectfuls” and “ladies” (quieter and less likely to confront people) were especially taken aback at the suburban students’ lack of respect and understanding.

Ispa-Landa noted that the girls eventually had to change their behavior if they wanted to succeed at the schools and ultimately in college. “The girls were forced to learn a more bifurcated way of being because they were excluded. That’s a gross generalization, but they had to, to fit in more. It’s not that stepping into a predefined role is so great, but it makes it easier. The boys were easily classifiable and the situation was less awkward.”

But if the boys had an easier time in the short term, Ispa-Landa points out, they may face greater challenges a few years down the road. Despite their social success, the boys were generally regarded by suburban students as troublemakers, which is not an asset when applying to colleges or jobs. In other words, being shoehorned into stereotypes benefits neither boys nor girls.

And yet, despite the social disconnect, Ispa-Landa believes that overall the Diversify experience gives urban students academic advantages that their peers do not have. “The Diversify kids were much more prepared for college. They had a much more elaborate understanding of college and how to get in. It was true for girls as well as boys. I would guess that the vast majority of the Diversify kids would go to college.”

Ispa-Landa is currently working on other articles that draw on the study data, as well as a book. “Gender’s effect on learning and development is complex, and it will provide myriad research opportunities for years to come.”