Megan CheAs Megan Che continues her research on South Carolina’s high number of single-sex classrooms in middle schools, she has begun to find that its benefits may not outweigh its inherent risks.

“We [South Carolina] were definitely the forerunners of this,” said Che, a researcher and associate professor in the Eugene T. Moore School of Education. “I was curious about why this was happening. What were some of the motivations for doing single-sex education? I was also very curious about what was going on in those settings.”

As Che’s project now approaches its fourth and final year, the results have begun to reveal what in fact goes on in single-gender classroom settings. So far, she hasn’t found a significant difference in instructional quality, academic rigor or academic performance between all girls, all boys and coeducational math and science classes in middle schools. She has found a difference, however, in the way that some students feel in these classes.

“There are some students—my sense is that these students are relatively small in number–for which these settings seem to be especially freeing, and to have these students feel comfortable taking intellectual risks is really important,” said Che.

In addition to investigating why single-gender classrooms have this effect on some students, Che and her team of doctoral and undergraduate student researchers also plan to further evaluate the risks involved with single-sex education. Since few high schools offer single-gender education, one of these risks involves the transition from single-gender classes back to a coeducational environment. They also are concerned with the potential for single-sex classrooms to perpetuate stereotypes about girls in math and science and boys in literature.

“Students are telling us that there is possibility [in single-sex classrooms], but we also sometimes see and hear the ramifications of those stereotypes and that perhaps single sex-settings can be a really nice conductor of those stereotypes,” said Che.

To better understand these risks, Che and her team will spend much of the project’s last year performing a detailed discourse analysis of the almost 360 videos collected from middle school classes.

“We just want to know more about the question. If it’s possible to do this well, how do we minimize the risks of using single-sex classrooms as conductors of gendered stereotypes?” said Che. “So perhaps even then the answer isn’t separating students by sex, but maybe it’s finding out more about why they feel this comfort they don’t feel in a coeducational class and finding some way to nurture that even in a coeducational setting.”

After the close of this project, Che plans to continue researching single-sex education, hoping to also study its effects in middle school English and literature classes.

“It’s so intricate, this process of teaching and learning, that to just play with it nilly-willy is potentially a dangerous thing,” said Che. “For most students, I’m not sure that the classroom type is as profound an influence as the teacher and the peers– and the home environment is the most profound influence. But for some students, I might think carefully about it. And that’s just my hope. My hope is that people will think carefully about these types of settings.”

–Ashley Hedrick, Class of 2016