Single-Sex Classrooms Under Fire

Back to November 2012 Ed Reporter

Single-Sex Classrooms Under Fire

In 2006, the United States Department of Education eased restrictions on single-sex education in public schools as long as the programs meet certain criteria. In order to comply with Title IX federal regulations from 1972 (which prohibit sex discrimination in education), the single-sex programs must be voluntary and schools must offer a “substantially equal” coed option. Further, the separation of boys and girls must be “substantially related to the achievement of [important governmental] objectives.” Six years later, many of these single-sex programs are under fire and are even being shut down under accusations that they are discriminatory and unbeneficial to students.

An estimated 500 to 1,000 public schools throughout the country have initiated single-sex classes or programs based on research saying boys’ and girls’ brains are physiologically different and, consequently, learn differently. Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. runs the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, through which he trains teachers and advocates for single-sex education, helping them to apply research findings on substantial differences in the ways boys and girls learn. He encourages teachers not only to segregate boys and girls, but also to offer different lesson plans and to change details such as the type of lighting in classrooms to match the needs of each set of students.

Critics claim that Dr. Sax’s research is based on “pseudo-science” and that, while some single-sex programs may appear to be effective, they are in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Opponents of single-sex education also argue that, in general, these programs are not actually educationally beneficial to students.

Studies concerning the efficacy of single-sex education – whether seeming to tout its benefits or liabilities – are inconclusive. This is primarily because the programs are usually voluntary, which automatically adds an external factor into the evaluations.

Groups like the ACLU and the Feminist Majority have been trying to shut down programs throughout the country by pointing out ways in which the programs appear to violate the 2006 federal regulations. While agreeing that public education needs reform, Amy Katz, cooperating attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, states: “Coeducation is not the problem, and separating kids to teach to sex stereotypes is certainly not the answer.”

In late August, the ACLU of West Virginia helped a mother and her daughters sue Van Devender Middle School in Parkersburg, WV, alleging that her daughters had suffered discrimination through the school’s use of single-sex classes. The mother claims that one of her daughters, who is legally blind, is unable to see well in the girls’ classroom because the school is acting in accordance with research stating that girls learn better in more dimly-lit rooms. Another of her daughters has reported sex-based discrimination because she has attention deficit disorder and is often reprimanded for her inability to sit still in the girls’ classroom, while boys in the classroom down the hall are encouraged to walk around the classroom.

During the last two years of single-sex classrooms, students at Van Devender have improved more on state tests than their peers at coed schools have. Further, both teachers and students have reported increased focus in the classroom, attributing the improvements to less pressure to impress the opposite sex.

Chief Judge Joseph Goodwin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia ruled that the Van Devender program was not sufficiently voluntary and needed to be shut down. In the future, Goodwin ruled, in order for the program to comply with Title IX, the school would need to present parents with the choice to “opt in” to the program in writing, rather than the school’s offering the single-sex program as the default option. Van Devender also would need to offer an equivalent coed option, which it did not at the time of the case. Goodwin did, however, indicate that he believes the school could reinstate its single-sex programs in the future: “The plaintiffs, in essence, take the position that no single-sex classes would ever withstand scrutiny under the Constitution or Title IX. The court finds this argument unpersuasive.”

The ACLU has succeeded in shutting down a number of other single-sex programs. The organization is also running a campaign to “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes,” and pressuring the U.S. Department of Education to abolish their 2006 regulations.

Sarah Rogers, staff attorney with the ACLU, states that, “these programs foster stereotypes and hurt kids who don’t fit the idea of how a stereotypical boy or girl is supposed to learn and behave.” But proponents of single-sex classrooms claim that the single-sex education movement is about breaking down gender stereotypes not promoting them. In single-sex classrooms, students of both sexes are freed up from the intense peer pressure and gender stereotyping that most students experience. Sax’s research has found that in single-sex classrooms girls are more likely to pursue math and science, and boys are more likely to act on an interest in the arts. According to Sax, “Ignoring gender differences doesn’t make them go away; it exacerbates gender stereotypes.”