Missing the mark...Coed must go!
By: Bonnie Schackelton-Verbuyst
B.A. (Hons. Hist.), B.Ed., M.Ed. Student (Education Policy)
University of Western Ontario

If there is any misleading concept, it is that of coeducation.
-Adrienne Rich, 1979.

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A truly equitable education is one that eliminates barriers and stereotypes which inhibit success for all students. To achieve this ideal, ‘equality of opportunity’ is central to contemporary educational policy and theory. Within education today, this ideology impacts all key practical and theoretical concerns (e.g., ability grouping, expenditures, curriculum usage, and educational aims). Through ‘equality of opportunity’, gender equity is supposed to be the ‘fait accompli’ for all students in coeducational schools. In reality, the coed setting cheats girls of equality. To gain genuine gender equality, females need single-sex education.

Coeducation fails to provide equitable treatment for girls. Research conducted in the 1980’s and early 1990’s exposed unequal treatment of girls (and boys) in coed classrooms. Female students were discouraged from class participation and males dominated. Within a coed setting, boys attract most of the teacher’s attention (e.g., Gilligan, 1982; Spender, 1982; Hall & Sandler, 1982; Stanworth, 1983; Coulter, 1993; Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Heyward, 1995). Teachers (both female and male) direct more questions to male students, wait longer for male responses, and provide increased coaching of males in critical thinking skills (e.g., Coulter, 1993; Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Heyward, 1995). Boys are encouraged to speculate, to challenge, and to take risks. On the contrary, girls’ attempts to take risks by participating are thwarted because of the presence of boys in the classroom (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Girls in a coed setting (especially in the junior-secondary years) are reluctant to express their viewpoints in front of boys for fear of being criticized or mocked (Miller, 1994). An inclusive girls-only setting represents a safe haven from male ‘put-downs’, distractions, and dominance.

Coeducation short changes girls through their exclusion from curriculum (Foster, 1989; AAUW, 1992; Coulter, 1993; Heyward, 1995). The very nature of the traditional (male-centred) curriculum perpetuates existing societal stereotypes and social bias. In 1992, a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) documented gender bias in virtually every aspect of coed schooling, from textbooks to standardized testing. The curriculum is remiss in not providing adequate treatment of women’s issues, interests and developmental needs. As an example, Coulter (1993) referred to history and comparative studies in Ontario. She found that texts approved for use excluded suitable references to women’s concerns. Coulter also stated that “Aboriginal women, women of colour and disabled women...[were] invisible in [these] school materials” (Coulter, 1993, p.3). This exclusion continues to affect females within the postsecondary and adult education sectors (Coulter,1993). These barriers adversely thwart future career opportunity and earning potential for women. As a centre for learning, schools must not provide lessons in sexism. Schools must not continue the system of socialization that ignores the potential of females.

Schools need to provide an environment for learning that “actively supports and resources the education of girls” through a “woman-centred curriculum” (Foster, 1989, p. 27). Such curriculum would provide the female experience within subject areas (e.g., science, technology, mathematics, history or literature) (Heyward, 1995). Employing this curriculum focus, students gain an understanding, and appreciation for gender ‘difference’ within society. Girls must be given the opportunity to expand their psychological horizons, and in so doing, learn to value each other. As educators, we must implement, measures to emancipate girls from the shackles of restrictive, patriarchal curriculum. As educators, we have a duty to adopt educational formats that will empower females.

Single-sex education is an effective way to celebrate female ‘difference’ in society. The notion of female ‘difference’ is a concept developed by men to reinforce their dominance over women in society. However, through single-sex education, an opportunity to use this ‘ difference’ to female advantage, is created. Within this setting, being female is valued and supported (Lockheed & Klein, 1985). In theory, coed schools are supposed to provide greater opportunities for egalitarian sex-role learning. However, in practice, these schools are “effectively inegalitarian” (Riordan, 1990, p. 11) and are the bastions of sex-segregation. Here boys and girls play separately on the playground, and choose same-sex friends for work partners. Ministry of Education (Ontario) policy states that all students are to be free from “sexist bias in school and classroom activities” (General Memorandum No. 4, 1989). In practice, students in coed classes are subject to sex and gender bias by their teachers and counselors (Streitmatter, 1994; Kwasnica, 1996) on a reoccurring basis.

Coeducation 'misses the mark' for girls in academics. Research indicates that in single-sex schools,girls do better in the non-traditional subjects such as science, math and technology (e.g., Fennema & Peterson, 1987; Leder, 1989; Cully, 1993 cited by Littleton, 1996; Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Daly, 1996; Streitmatter, 1997). The academic level of girls at private schools is higher than the public coed system (Cresser, 1993; Heyward, 1995). This positive academic success spills over into post-secondary schooling. Studies demonstrate that female graduates from single-sex high schools opt for non-traditional university majors more often than women from coeducational institutions (Astin & Panos, 1969; Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1973).

Single-sex classrooms produce environments more "conducive to learning" (Riordan, 1990, p. 151). Research indicates that self-confidence is a catalyst for this academic success (e.g., Fennema & Peterson, 1987; Heyward, 1995; Fennema, 1996; Daly, 1996). during the middle school years, girls in a coed setting experience "anxiety" and decreased confidence in their abilities, particularly in math, science and technology (e.g., Brush, 1980; Robertson, 1988; Shaw, 1995). They compare themselves to boys, and somehow feel inept (Fennema & Peterson, 1989). Survey results also indicate that girls "feel more comfortable in a single-sex setting" (Marsh, Owens, Marsh & Smith, 1989, p. 155) "without exception" (Streitmatter, 1997, p. 15). Within a girls-only setting, the pressures concerning the adolescent subculture are reduced and distractions of the opposite sex eliminated. In single-sex classes, girls are the top achievers and incidentally become role-models and mentors.

Some school boards have responded to the need for single-sex education. Take, for example, The Nellie McClung girls-only public junior high school in Edmonton. This school has an inclusive woman-centred curriculum (Sanford-Smith, 1996; Coulter, 1996). In 1995, The Linden School, a feminist girls' school, was established in Toronto (Moore & Goudie, 1995 cited by Coulter, 1996). Further, Timiskaming District Secondary School now offers courses specifically designed for female students in drafting, exploratory shop and automotive, There staff have found that "young women...feel more comfortable pursuing non-traditional courses in an all-female environment" (Wells, 1991, p. 15). single-sex classrooms within coeducational settings are also offered by many American states (e.g., New Jersey, Iowa, California, New York, and Pennsylvania). Within Canada, women are legally entitled to affirmative action measures as an integral part of achieving equality rights (Human Rights Code (Ontario), 1990: Constitution Act, 1982). School boards must be responsive to increasing parental demands regarding single-sex schooling. These consumers demand an increase in their public educational services, especially for female students: single-sex schooling within schools, or possible single-sex schooling between schools (Daly, 1996). This issue is a political dilemma that school boards must reconcile.

"Equality of opportunity" is only a slogan within coeducational schools, and coeducation actually reduces the genuine experiences of equality. In society, mutual respect can only be attained when people openly and honestly understand their own strengths and limitations. This requires a realistic self-identity, a well-founded gender image, and feelings of inner power. Girls must no longer be sacrificed upon the altar of "inferiority within educational policy" (Gaskell, McLaren, and Novogrodsky, 1989, p. 16 cited by Harper, 1997, p. 198). single-sex education is a venue from which these needs are examined, celebrated, nurtured and developed unique to girls. Single-sex schools represent a model for educating girls that provides them with an effective opportunity for equality. It is not a relic from the past, but a hope for the future.


American Association of University Women. (1992). How schools shortchange girls. Washington: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.

Astin, A.W., & Panos, R.J. (1969). The educational and vocational development of college students. Washington: American Council of Education.

Brush, L.R. (1980). Encouraging girls in mathematics: The problem and the solution. Cambridge: Abt Books.

Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. (1973). Opportunities for women in higher education. New York: McGraw Hill.

Coulter, R.P. (1993, June). Gender socialization: New ways, new world. Paper released at the Annual meeting of Status of Women Ministers in New Brunswick.

Coulter, R.P. (1996). Gender equity and schooling: Linking research and policy. Canadian Journal of Education, 21 (4), 433-452.

Cresser, R. (1993). Take three girls: A comparison of girls' A-level achievement in three types of sixth form within the independent sector. In G. Walford (Ed.), The private schooling of girls (pp 174-186). Portland: The Woburn Press.

Daly, P. (1996) The effect of single-sex and coeducational secondary schooling on girls' achievement. Research papers in education: Policy and practice, 11 (3), 289-306.

Fennema, E. (1996) Scholarship, gender and mathematics. In P.F. Murphy & C.V. Gipps (Eds.), Equity in the classroom (pp.73-80). Bristol: Falmer Press.

Fennema, E., & Peterson, P. (1985). Autonomous behavior: A possible explanation of gender-related differences in mathematics. In L.C. Wilkinson & C.B. Marrett (Eds.), Gender influences in classroom interactions (pp. 17-35). New York: Academic Press.

Fennema, E., & Peterson, P. (1987). Effective teaching for girls and boys: The same or different? In D. Berliner & B. Rosenshine (Eds.), Talks to teachers (pp. 111-125). New York: Random House.

Foster, V. (1989). Is gender-inclusive curriculum the answer for girls? In G.C. Leder & S.N. Sampson (Eds.), Educating Girls (pp. 26-38). Winchester: Unwin Hyman.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different vice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

This essay is the sole work of Bonnie Shackelton and reflect her opinions only. To make comments, contact the author, Bonnie Shackelton, by e-mail at bgshacke@julian.uwo.ca

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