Sex-Segregated K-12 Education? Again?

Rarely a week goes by without a news story or blog post related to single-sex public K-12 education. Coverage often focuses on the ways in which girls and/or boys benefit from these settings and the research that allegedly supports these claims. All this numbs the mind of someone who remembers the passage of Title IX and the hopes associated with it.

I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s. Girls took home economics, whether we wanted to or not. Boys took shop classes under the same assumptions. I didn’t question these assumptions, but I did wish I could participate in track and field; my only school-sponsored “sports” options were cheerleading and girls basketball. Cheerleading wasn’t much of a sport and girls basketball was full of rules about not running across center line and how many bounces were allowed when dribbling the ball.  My father helped me set up a backyard long jump and a pole vault pit with an old mattress and a stick between two poles. It was fun, but it wasn’t “real.”

The passage of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program receiving federal financial assistance. Some exceptions were allowed for existing single-sex schools, for contact sports and for instruction in specific areas such as human sexuality. Feminists celebrated. No longer could schools schedule classes in advanced English and physics at the same time and steer girls to one and boys to the other. No longer would it be legal to provide unequal school-sponsored sports opportunities. Best of all, gendered stereotypes limiting options for both sexes would diminish significantly as girls and boys were educated as equals in the same schools and classrooms. Or so we hoped.

Today the idea of restricting access to course offerings on the basis of sex is as old fashioned as separate job listings for men and women. Girls and boys increasingly see each other as equally capable of achieving in a wide range of fields. But continued advocacy for single-sex public education is ample proof of the strength of outmoded gender myths.

Rather than exploring the far more common similarities among girls and boys, many educators, parents and policy makers have succumbed to pseudo-scientific theories of large sex differences in cognitive and emotional skills and learning styles. These theories have been debunked repeatedly. Nonetheless, many remain convinced that sex segregation is the best approach when it comes to the education of our children.

In fact, so many believe this to be the case, that in 2006 the George W. Bush Administration’s Department of Education issued a new Title IX regulation which allows more single-sex options in public schools. This regulation is confusing, but does require justifying single-sex instruction by showing that it addresses specific educational needs, objectives and opportunities not otherwise met in coeducational classes, and without limiting opportunities available to any student. So far, however, the largely anecdotal evidence cited for single-sex success has faded under more careful scrutiny. To date there is no convincing evidence that single-sex public K-12 schooling is superior to coeducation.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently addressed the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference in San Francisco. Reiterating his belief in the importance of research in formulating educational policy, he noted, “We need you, the researchers, to answer the question “which approach works better—this one or that one–and then we need to move forward informed by your answer.”

If current research on the shortcomings of single sex education is not convincing enough for Secretary Duncan and other education policy makers, if they still support public funding for single-sex approaches, then perhaps it is time for increased evaluation of these offerings.

Working with educational researchers around the country, The Feminist Majority Foundation has proposed suggested guidelines for schools considering or already implementing single-sex approaches in public K-12 schools. These have been submitted to the Department of Education for comment and adoption. The guidelines recommend careful planning and process evaluation as key aspects of single-sex programs. Such steps are critical to solid evaluations of outcomes. And only careful outcome evaluation can document whether single-sex approaches have succeeded in decreasing sex discriminatory education and attaining other stated education achievement goals better than comparably well-funded, -staffed and -planned coeducational approaches.

Particularly in tight economic times, scarce public resources must be focused on effective, legally sound, equitable education–education equally available to all. If careful research and evaluation show some single-sex approaches meet these criteria, such programs should be promoted and replicated in appropriate settings. Any single-sex approaches that do not meet these criteria should be halted immediately.  With limited public funds and clear legal requirements to address, there is no more time for programs based on what people think they know. We need educational approaches grounded in what careful research shows is effective.

Crossposted from Girl w/Pen on

Photo from Flickr user Medill DC under license from Creative Commons 2.0