by Tamara Schulman, Legal Intern
National Women’s Law Center
According to last weekend’s Washington Post about 500 public schools nationwide will institute single-sex classrooms by next fall. The intense flurry of single sex schools and programs opening this fall raises the critical question of whether these programs provide an important educational option for students or are based on and replicate outmoded stereotypes. In fact, there still is no sound data that single-sex classrooms are effective. To the contrary, there is substantial evidence that they not only fail to meet schools’ academic goals but disserve their students as well.
The reports from schools profiled in the Post demonstrate that, as the Department of Education itself has conceded, the academic track record of single sex programs is equivocal. Some schools claim that as a result of single-sex classrooms, students were more willing to participate in class, had higher grades, and had better attitudes towards school. But it is impossible to determine whether any improved educational outcomes are a result of classrooms separated by sex or instead of other factors known to achieve success in schools, such as highly motivated teachers or engaged students and parents. And other schools noticed no improvement resulting from single-sex classrooms.
But one certainty from many of the schools described in the Post article is that gender stereotypes are on the rise in these programs. For example, in one all girls’ classroom, girls sit in a “tidy circle” while boys down the hall have “desks facing in every direction.” Girls read poems they wrote about birds and boys read poems they wrote about leopards. What’s next? Girls learn to sew and boys learn how to fix a car?
Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, claims that girls’ and boys’ brains are hard wired differently such that each gender needs its own classroom with distinct teaching methods. I have a hard time believing that the girls in Ms. Demshur’s class described in the article were all “hard wired” to wear pink backpacks. One girl cut out a heart shaped piece of paper, wrote “I like your hair” on it, and taped it to a desk. Was she hard wired to do that? If so, I want to know who wired her that way.
Well, whoever “wired” her, one thing is clear: her single-sex classroom better be careful not to violate Title IX or the U.S. Constitution. Even the Department of Education’s 2006 Regulations require that single sex programs be voluntary – a basic concept unfortunately left out of many new programs. Moreover, Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause require, among other things, that programs be equal and not based on generalizations about the interests and abilities of boys and girls. In other words, basing a single sex program on stereotypes will not meet these criteria.
This whole debate leads me to two final thoughts. First, kids need attentive teachers who care about their individual needs, not teachers who lock them into general categories. Second, and finally, whoever thinks that all girls are “tidy” has not seen my room.