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NATIONAL | FALL 2013

Failing Our Kids: Despite pseudoscience to the contrary, sex segregation in public schools creates problems—not solutions


By SUSAN MCGEE BAILEY

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 sex discrimination.

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 of thing.”

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 public education.

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 behaviors.

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 legal fees.

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 sex segregation.

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 flawed.”

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 and communities.

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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