Do Single-Sex Schools Improve Learning?

Do Single-Sex Schools Improve Learning?

Kirabo Jackson

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. 

A labor economist, Jackson studies education and social policy issues. In addition to single-gender schooling, his recent work analyzes the role of peer learning in teacher effectiveness and how student demographics affect the distribution of teacher quality across schools. He is also involved in a number of projects to understand when and why certain policies that reward teachers — or students — for student achievement improve student outcomes. 

Jackson, who holds a PhD in economics from Harvard University, is a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

By Adapted from Institute for Policy Research article
Last Modified: 10/17/14