Dear Commons Community,
Single-sex education, common in the United States until the 19th century, when it fell into deep disfavor except in private or parochial schools, is on the rise again in public schools as educators seek ways to improve academic performance, especially among the poor. Some schools such as Charles Drew Elementary School in Broward County, Florida, about a quarter of the classes are segregated by sex on the theory that differences between boys and girls can affect how they learn and behave. As reported in the New York Times, this policy is raising concerns about gender separation among educators and policymakers:
“Advocates of single-sex classes often cite the struggles of boys, who persistently lag behind girls in national tests of reading comprehension and are much more likely to face disciplinary problems and drop out of school. Educators also argue that girls underperform in science when compared with boys and benefit from being with other girls. And school officials say that children can be easily distracted by the opposite sex in the classroom.”
On the other hand:
“Rebecca Bigler, a psychologist at the University of Texas, said that segregating by sex — or any social category — increases prejudice based on stereotypes.
“You say there’s a problem with sexism,” Ms. Bigler said, “and instead of addressing the sexism, you just remove one sex.”
That worries the American Civil Liberties Union, which this year filed complaints with the Education Department against four Florida school districts, accusing them of violations of federal civil rights law and of using “overly broad stereotypes” to justify separating girls and boys into different classrooms. The A.C.L.U. also filed a complaint in Austin, Tex., against two new single-sex middle schools, and has pending complaints in Idaho and Wisconsin and a nearly two-decade-old complaint in New York. Lawsuits in Louisiana and West Virginia have resulted in single-sex classes there reverting to coeducation.”
In response to the A.C.L.U. complaints and the growth in single-gender classrooms, the Obama administration is issuing guidance for school districts. Schools may set up such classes if they can provide evidence that the structure will improve academics or discipline in a way that coeducational measures cannot. Students must have a coeducational alternative, and families must volunteer to place their children in all-boys or all-girls classes.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It seems that both sides have the best interests of students at heart.