NATIONAL | FALL 2013
Failing Our Kids: Despite pseudoscience to the contrary, sex segregation in public schools creates problems—not solutions
FORTY-ONE YEARS AGO, THE PASSAGE
of Title IX of the Education Amendments
of 1972 prohibited sex discrimination
in education programs and activities
receiving federal assistance. Among many
other things, that meant sex-segregated
classes in public schools—such as home
ec for girls only and shop for boys only—were no longer
legal. A few exceptions were permitted: for contact sports,
sex ed, existing single-sex schools, and for remedial or affirmative
purposes to decrease sex discrimination.
Feminists celebrated. We believed that sex stereotyping would diminish as girls and boys were educated as equals
in coed classrooms, with teachers who understood the
harmful effects of gender stereotypes. The central purpose
of public education—developing an educated citizenry—
would be strengthened as students of both sexes
learned from, about and with each other.
Or so we hoped.
There was a decrease in single-sex public schools and
classes. But gendered assumptions lingered in classrooms,
and Title IX remained under constant attack. Advocates
for gender equality were forced to repeatedly defend
against those who wanted to gut the law.
The gravest threat came during the Reagan years, when
the U.S. Supreme Court stripped Title IX of its broad authority,
ruling in Grove City College v. Bell that Title IX
only applied to the specific federally funded education
programs in schools and universities—not to the entire institution.
Fortunately, after waging a four-year campaign,
feminists and civil rights organizations won passage of the
1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act, which essentially reversed
the Grove City decision and restored full coverage
for Title IX.
Under Title IX, single-sex programs in the nation’s
public schools are allowed only when solid evidence indicates
such approaches are more effective in combating
sex discrimination than comparably resourced coed programs.
But in 2006, the U.S. Department of Education
(ED) under President George W. Bush issued a new Title
IX regulation with the intention of making it easier to
create more single-sex K–12 public schools and classes—
even though the overwhelming majority of public comments
submitted to the ED opposed the changes. School
districts began to create sex-segregated schools and
classes, often ignoring the requirements that programs
be “completely voluntary,” that districts offer coed
schools and classes of “substantially equal” quality for
the excluded sex, and that the programs aim to decrease
Eroding decades of progress, and despite plenty of evidence
against sex segregation as a way to end sex-based
discrimination, the number of single-sex classes increased.
Between 2007 and 2010 (the most recent data available),
more than 1,000 of the 98,000 public K–12 schools in the
nation reported having single-sex academic classes.
Some schools went as far as segregating students in hallways,
lunchrooms and even on school buses—as Arlington
Community High School in Indianapolis was doing in 2011.
Other school systems have instituted separate classes for
boys and girls in subjects such as algebra or physics. But in
all cases the message is clear: Boys and girls are such polar
opposites that we can’t educate them together.
That was also the message in a West Virginia sexsegregated
middle school program (later ended in a federal
district court settlement) with stereotypically different
expectations of boys and girls. In boys’ classes, students
were permitted lots of moving about, but in girls’ classes
they were expected to sit quietly. The principal, in a video,
described boys’ classrooms as having bright lighting and
students seated side-by-side because “when they [boys] look
each other in the eye it becomes more of a confrontationaltype
thing. Girls…sit around tables, where they make eye
contact, where they can make relationships and that sort
Far from being a solution to the serious issues confronting
students in many of the nation’s public schools,
single-sex instruction is part of the problem. Simply separating
students on the basis of sex fixes nothing. Evidence
has mounted from social scientists, neuroscientists and
legal scholars that sex segregation often increases discrimination
and sex stereotyping. A recent study of 7th graders in a school offering both coed and single-sex classes found
that those in single-sex classrooms finished the year with
stronger gender-stereotyped beliefs than those in the coed
classes. And research has documented that the more traditional
the gender stereotypes held by students, the greater
their risk of engaging in dangerous behaviors such as substance
abuse, aggression and unprotected sex.
Significant inequities between newly created single-sex
options and coed settings in the same district and/or
school in terms of student-teacher ratios, enrichment programs
and/or facilities are common. When formerly coed
neighborhood schools are converted to schools with all or
many single-sex classes, students who don’t want singlesex
instruction may have to attend less convenient and
sometimes lower-quality schools or classes.
In the nearly seven years the Bush regulation has been
in effect, the evidence of illegal sex discrimination in
public schools with deliberate sex segregation has
mounted. That’s why feminist, civil rights and education
groups have called for the 2006 Bush regulation, which
the Obama administration has left untouched, to be rescinded.
They also want the Department of Education to
clarify when sex-segregated programs are permitted for
affirmative purposes, and when they’re not. The need
for clarity is particularly appropriate given new ED regulations
issued in August 2013 that require rigorous
evidence of success for public school education programs—
including single-sex schools/classes—applying
for federal funding.
Leading the campaign for rescission is the National
Coalition for Women and Girls in Education—which
includes, among other groups, the American Association
of University Women, American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU), Feminist Majority Foundation, National Organization
for Women (NOW), National Women’s Law
Center, American Federation of Teachers and National
Education Association. These groups are committed to
equality and quality in all public school settings.
So why would anyone want to segregate boys
and girls in public schools?
Advocates of single-sex approaches often compare a
handful of well-resourced sex-segregated public schools
serving inner-city communities with failing coed schools.
They point to the positive influences of these single-sex
academies on students lucky enough to attend them. But
there is also evidence that such schools may absorb disproportionate
resources that could be better used by a
wider group of coed schools. Such specialized funding is
far from equitable.
Nor is there evidence that sex-segregating students is a
key to academic success. Simply separating boys and girls
does not eliminate all distractions or halt harassing behaviors—
two ideas that are popular but unfounded. Successful
public education programs, both single-sex and coed, share
numerous characteristics and practices, among the most
important being effective principals, strong school communities,
significant financial support, enthusiastic and
well-trained teachers and high expectations for students.
Furthermore, successful coed schools can help boys and
girls understand and respect each other as equals. Singlesex
environments seldom address this crucial aspect of
Other justifications for single-sex education are based
on the belief that girls and boys learn differently because
their brains are hardwired to function differently. Such
misperceptions are fostered by pseudoscience that proclaims
vast, immutable male/female differences. But there
is no scientific evidence to support such
claims. Rather, neuroscientists find that
children’s brains are malleable and constantly
adapting to environmental signals.
Thus, treating boys and girls differently
contributes directly to differential gender
Finally, some proponents of single-sex
instruction argue that girls need special
classes and encouragement in scientific and
mathematical areas. This ignores the many
boys who can also benefit from encouragement
in technical subjects and careers, again
sending gender-stereotyped messages that
fail to help students.
In educational areas that matter—academic
abilities, emotional skills and learning
styles—the sexes are far more similar
than different. On almost every psychological
variable, including aggression, larger variations can be found between
individual boys or individual
girls than between boys as a group
and girls as a group.
The few studies claiming the effectiveness
of single-sex education compared
to coeducation have not
withstood scientific scrutiny. Facts,
however, have not stopped those who
buy into the gender-essentializing
practices advocated by such groups as
Leonard Sax’s National Association
for Single Sex Public Education
(NASSPE)—which have encouraged
schools to deliberately use different
approaches with boys and girls.
In Tampa, Fla., for example, where separate public
academies have been created for girls and boys, the middle
schools’ home pages feature videos of students repeating
well-worn gender stereotypes:
“[Girls]…have strong senses of smell and hearing. …
We work and relate well in face-to-face situations.”
“[Boys have] heightened spatial skills. …A boy’s autonomic
nervous system causes him to be more alert when
standing or moving.”
If teachers tell students they are good at some things
and not at others because of their gender, one can only
imagine how those students will think about themselves
and their futures.
Fortunately, a number of public school systems
are reconsidering their initial enthusiasm for single-sex
programs—often because they are more expensive and because
they have been unable to withstand legal challenges
resulting from their discriminatory practices.
Sex-segregated public education is an expensive proposition.
Schools that use single-sex classes must ensure that
they are completely voluntary and that there are comparable
coed options. Single-sex programs must not result in
advantages such as more experienced teachers, more afterschool
options or better athletic opportunities for either
boys or girls than are available to students in coed settings.
Districts that do not comply with the law risk significant
In Vermilion Parish, La., the school board granted a
middle school principal permission to sex segregate math
and English classes in the eighth grade for six weeks in order
to collect data that would form the basis of the principal’s
doctoral dissertation. Students were placed in the
single-sex classes without the consent of either the students
or their parents. The principal reported a substantial
improvement in grades for students and a drop in
discipline referrals. Based on these purported outcomes,
the school board approved total sex segregation in the
middle school for the following year.
When a mother requested that her
two daughters be placed in coed classes
and discovered that those classes
were in fact special education classes,
she asked the ACLU to sue to stop the
In the course of the litigation, evidence
was presented that student
grades had actually worsened during
the experimental period, that there
were numerous unreported failing
grades and that the principal’s data
showing a decrease in discipline referrals
was not correct. The federal
district court generously described the study as “extremely
After the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal held that the
school board would have to bear the burden of demonstrating
“an exceedingly persuasive justification” for the
sex-based classification of its students, the school board
agreed to cease the unlawful sex separation.
Louisiana is not an outlier. The ACLU has had to file
lawsuits or complaints to end sex-segregated education
programs in Wisconsin, Alabama and West Virginia, and
its lawyers continue to fight against sex-segregating
school programs in other states.
Rather than offering a hoped-for fix to problems of low
student achievement, single-sex instruction has failed our
students and encouraged school districts to risk breaching
both Title IX and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection
Clause. Public education should be about providing
equal opportunities for all students, no matter where they
are on the continuum of abilities, socioeconomic status,
racial backgrounds or gender orientations. The long-term
effects of messages embedded in sex-segregated instruction
not only limit students but shortchange workplaces
The U.S. has moved far beyond the days when girls
were excluded from many educational options. Rolling
back the progress of the past century on the mistaken notion
that sex segregation will provide better learning opportunities
for girls and boys in this country is a worn-out
fallacy that has no place in the 21st century. It is time to
rescind the 2006 Bush changes to Title IX and move forward
with public education that reduces gendered, racist
and homophobic assumptions, eliminates discrimination
and promotes equality for all.
SUSAN MCGEE BAILEY headed the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College from 1985–2011. She was principal author of the 1992 AAUW report “How Schools Shortchange Girls.” Her blog, Second Look, can be found at www.girlwpen.com.
Reprinted from the Fall 2013 issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.
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