Co-ed Classrooms Favor Boys

Teachers are often stunned when they watch videos of themselves leading their classes. Time after time a video is clear evidence that a teacher favors boys.

Professors David and Myra Sadker spent over a decade and thousands of hours in American classrooms watching and taking notes on sexist teaching methods. They published their results in their groundbreaking book, Failing at Fairness, and also appeared on television shows like Dateline to expose sexism in co-ed schools.

What they found is that teachers are more likely to call on boys and then go on to reinforce, praise and encourage them. When a boy gives a wrong answer, a teacher will spend time to help him reason out the correct answer. However, when a girl answers, a teacher is likely to either respond with a bland “okay” to her right answer or simply to move on to another student if her answer is incorrect.

Boys are eight times more likely to call out in class without raising their hands and tend to dominate discussions. Boys are twice often used as role models in class and five times more apt to get a teacher’s attention when they raise their hands to recite. Boys often recite even if they have not done the day’s homework, whereas even well prepared girls hesitate to participate. The older girls get, the more they let boys take over the class.

Classroom teachers are more likely to teach a boy how to do things for himself, but take over tasks for girls, and not just in the primary grades. For example, the Sadkers record how a high school teacher took the time to show a boy how to put a disk into a computer. The same teacher just sighed in disapproval and took over the same task for a female student.

The American Association of University Women’s study, How Schools ShortchangeGirls, found that teachers learn boys’ names more quickly. Ten years later, they are more likely to remember boys as the most brilliant students of their careers.

On the surface, girls seem to do better in school because they get better grades, behave better, and are not as referred for discipline, special education and tutoring as often as boys are. However, in practice this means that quiet girls who are quietly failing are not sent for help as often as boys who are noisy and acting up in class. In a nutshell, girls are penalized for their good behavior as their teachers spend more time interacting with and reinforcing boys. This difference could partly explain why girls in co-ed schools have less confidence in their academic ability and lower self-esteem than those in single sex classes.

An underlying theme of coeducational schools is that if only boys would work harder and behave better, they’d get better grades. The underlying message for girls is “You are nice and well behaved, and you work hard, but you’re not very smart.”

Textbooks and reading materials have more male characters and references. One widely used American history book mentions women on only three percent of its pages. Girls learn that their lives count for less.

In one particularly disturbing exercise, the Sadkers asked 1400 high school students to list twenty famous American women. The list could not contain names of female athletes or entertainers or women who were known through their husbands. Only seven students out of 1400 could name twenty famous American women.

Boys know that they are the favored sex in coeducational schools. In a 1988 study, 1200 elementary-age students wrote on the subject: “Today I woke up and I was the Opposite Sex.” Boys were 95% negative about waking up as girls. Many expressed revulsion such as: “First I’d throw up. Then I’d go crazy.” “I’d stab myself in my heart with a knife.” “I’d blow myself up.” On the other hand, almost half of the girls wrote that becoming a boy would be a positive experience for them.

Single-sex education may help girls to feel more positive about their sex as they get more time and attention from their teachers, openly question male bias in textbooks and reading materials, and assume leadership roles in their schools.


American Association of University Women. How Schools Shortchange Girls. Published by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation and Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1992.

“Benefits of Attending a Girls’ School.” The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, 2004. Posted at

Hammer, Trudy. The Gender Gap in Schools. Springfield , NJ : Enslow Publishers, Inc. 1996.

Kimball, Gayle. The Teen Trip. Chico , CA : Equality Press, 1996.

Sadker, Myra and David. Failing at Fairness. New York : Charles Scribner, 1994.