The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Providing New Opportunities or Reinforcing Old Stereotypes? Students' and Other Stakeholders' Perceptions and Experiences of Single-Sex Public Education

Friday, January 18, 2013: 3:30 PM
Marina 1 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Sara Goodkind, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Lisa Schelbe, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Andrea Joseph, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Daphne Beers, BA, Master's Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Stephanie Pinsky, BASW Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background and Purpose: In 2011, the Pittsburgh School Board combined its two worst-performing high schools, overwhelmingly populated by low-income students of color, into two “single-gender academies.” This change is part of a widespread increase in single-sex public schools following 2006 amendments to Title IX easing legal impediments to single-sex public education in the U.S. These amendments were stipulated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which had an explicit focus on improving the academic achievement of low-income students of color. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education estimates that currently 622 public schools in the U.S. offer single-sex educational opportunities, whereas 12 provided such options in 2002. Because single-sex public education is such a recent phenomenon, very little is known about its effects and efficacy. This project had two goals: 1) to document students’  and other stakeholders’ perceptions and experiences of single-sex public education, and 2) to train youth as co-researchers and thus empower them to participate in community change efforts.

Methods: This was a community-based participatory research (CBPR) project, meaning that participating 11th and 12th graders were co-researchers, trained by university faculty and students. Co-researchers were recruited from an after-school program and data collected include in-depth individual and group interviews with students, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders. Research team members identified key informants to interview. Most student participants (n=10) were interviewed multiple times throughout the school year, while most adult participants (n=12) were interviewed once. Researchers took detailed ethnographic fieldnotes throughout the school year, which include classroom and after-school interactions and observations. Interviews were transcribed verbatim, and all data analyzed through an iterative process of coding, memoing, and discussion among researchers.

Results: Both positive and negative aspects of single-sex public education emerged. While many students appreciated the safe, focused space created by single-sex classrooms, they also identified ways in which gendered stereotypes were reinforced in this process. School system administrators believed that single-sex education offered low-income students of color opportunities similar to those afforded privileged White students in single-sex private schools. Yet, this was not the association made by most students at this school, who instead associated it with “alternative” schools for expelled students and juvenile justice institutions. Thus, some students questioned why they were being punished for their failing schools when students at other local schools were not being separated by sex.

Conclusions and Implications: While not able to address questions about student achievement, given that the move to single-sex education occurred simultaneous to an influx of other resources, this study offers insight into the experiences and perspectives of those affected by this change. It raises questions about using scarce resources to create learning environments perceived as punitive by students and about policy efforts aimed to improve the lives of low-income students of color. Social work researchers, because of our expertise in CBPR and extensive work with low-income youth, are ideally suited to continue to address the lack of research in this area and to ensure that youths’ experiences remain central to the discussion.