Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
“Boys are better in math, girls are better in language”. These are commonly accepted assumptions.
Some also believe that it’s beneficial to teach boys and girls in separate groups to solve the math/language challenge. For example, Mister David Chadwell seems pretty convinced that single sex education is the answer. But would that really work?
Daniel and Susan Voyer (University of New Brunswick) conducted a meta-analysis of research about gender differences and school performance. They analysed 502 studies, conducted between 1914 and 2011, in 30 different countries. In total, the studies included 538,710 boys and 595,332 girls.
What did they find? In contrast with what we’ve been hearing for years, girls outperformed boys in all subjects with the biggest difference for language subjects and the smallest for math, although even this difference was still statistically significant. In other words, girls outperform boys across the board, regardless of country influences, year that the research was conducted and so on. In other words, girls have been outperforming boys for a century as “the magnitude of the female advantage was not affected by year of publication, thereby contradicting claims of a recent “boy crisis” in school achievement” (p. 1174).
Interestingly, the researchers used school performance (school marks given by the teachers) and not performance on standardised tests. They opted for this approach because in their opinion overall grades reflect learning in a broader (social) context as well as commitment and perseverance over longer periods of time. Standardised tests, on the other hand, measure basic or specialised academic skills at one specific moment in time without taking any social influences into account.
The researchers conclude: “The fact that girls – in general – perform better than boys seems to be a very well-kept secret given the fact that little to no attention has been paid to this globally proven result” (p. 1191).
It’s actually pretty amazing that the stereotype idea that boys are better in mathematics and science than girls is so deep-rooted since girls have outperformed boys in school for almost a century. In other words, today’s ‘boy crisis’ in school performance is nothing but old news!
Now what about gender-segregated education? Three researchers, two from the US and one from Canada (Pahlke, Hyde, & Allison, 2014) conducted a meta-analysis to identify if students in primary and secondary education perform better if boys and girls are in separate classes or in mixed classes.
They analysed both the methodologies and the results of 184 studies. The studies included more than 1.6 million students in 21 countries as well as a wide variety of subjects, such as arithmetic, mathematics, language, science, general school performance. The researchers also analysed non-cognitive effects such attitudes towards arithmetic/mathematics, self-esteem, gender stereotyping, school aspirations and ambitions. It is critical to note that the researchers took into consideration if the studies’ methodologies were solid. The findings showed that some studies seemed to indicate that gender-segregated education is slightly better, however, these studies used a questionable methodology. For example, some studies did not sufficiently control the results for other effects or studies did not include mixed classes to compare their results with. Hence, we don’t know whether there are real differences between gender-segregated and mixed groups and if there are differences, we do not know what causes those differences.
The studies with a strong methodology did not show any evidence for a gender-segregated advantage. These studies even showed certain benefits for students in mixed classes, for example the school ambitions of girls! The researchers therefore conclude: claims that gender-segregated education is better do not make any sense; they are not backed up by research anyway. In their words, “There is little evidence of an advantage of SS [single gender] schooling for girls or boys for any of the outcomes” (p. 1064).
So what’s the story here? Perhaps some policy makers, governors or even consultants in the ed space are simply gender-obsessed. It would be highly recommended if they urgently seek help to cure them once and for all.
Chadwell, D., (n.d.). Single-Gender Classes Can Respond to the Needs of Boys and Girls. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol5/512-newvoices.aspx.
Halpern, D.F., Eliot, L., Bigler, R.S., Fabes, R.A., Hanish, L.D., Hyde. J., Liben, L.S., & Martin, C.L., (2011). The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling. Science, 333, 1706-1707.
Lavy, V., & Sand, E., (2015). On the Origins of Gender Human Capital Gaps. Short and Long Term Consequences of Teachers’ Stereotypical Biases. Retrieved from http://in.bgu.ac.il/en/humsos/Econ/Documents/seminars/March2615.pdf
Pahlke, E., Hyde, J. S., & Allison, C. M. (2014). The effects of single-gender compared with coeducational schooling on students’ performance and attitudes: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. DOI: 10.1037/a0035740 Available at: http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-a0035740.pdf
Voyer, D., & Voyer, S. D. (2014). Gender differences in scholastic achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin DOI: 10.1037/a0036620 Available at: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-a0036620.pdf
 E.g. Lavy & Sand, (2015).
 E.g. Halpern et al., (2014).