Public schools in distress? Gender stereotypes to the rescue!

U.S. Department of Education may allow use of single-sex education in public schools to grow.

Published August 18, 2006 2:00PM (EDT)

Maybe our celebration of the ACLU's successful foiling of Louisiana's Livingston Parish school board's plan to institute mandatory sex segregation was premature. It looks like the U.S. Department of Education plans to soon release regulations on public single-sex classrooms and schools, which could safeguard school districts from sex-discrimination lawsuits.

In an editorial in USA Today, Emily Martin and Katie Schwartzmann of the ACLU argue that these new regulations will "allow for expanded use of single-sex education in public schools." This is unsettling for a number of reasons, none of which has anything to do with the real benefits of single-sex education. When we first covered the issue, Broadsheet readers wrote in to both laud and decry same-sex education; some provided their firsthand experience as proof.

Even with voluntary sex segregation, as the Livingston Parish school district so curiously illustrated, there's a serious need for safeguards that prevent schools from sourcing the retro and flatly sexist philosophizing of someone like Leonard Sax, a popular author who may hold a Ph.D. but has no actual training in education (see previous coverage). Had the ACLU not intervened, the Livingston school board may very well have instituted a curriculum based on crackpot ideas about gender difference. "Although these ideas are hyped as 'new discoveries' about brain differences, they are, in fact, only dressed up versions of old stereotypes -- that boys must be bullied and girls must be coddled," Martin and Schwartzmann argue.

A USA Today Op-Ed counters the ACLU's editorial with an optimistic argument for voluntary same-sex programs in public schools. It would be a nice idea were our public school system's budget as bloated as our military budget. But according to Martin and Schwartzmann, "proponents of gender-segregation are touting boys- or girls-only classrooms as a fix-all solution to the woes of many struggling school districts." If we can't target kids' individual needs in coed classes, what makes us think we have the resources to institute a program that requires additional staffing and training?

Regardless, as Martin and Schwartzmann point out, "the most reliable evidence available shows that proven approaches to educational reform -- such as smaller classes, teachers with decent salaries and parental involvement -- make much more sense than separating boys and girls based on outmoded stereotypes."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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