This month, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a new training requirement law for teachers in “gender specific” classrooms in Florida’s second largest school district. The Hillsborough County Public Schools have gender segregated classes in 16 schools, and operate two single-gender schools. The law goes into effect on July 1, 2014.
Florida is one of several states that have embraced the idea of single-sex education since 2006.
A provision in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 allowed schools to use Title IX funds to support single-sex schooling initiatives as long as they were within accordance to applicable law. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits gender discrimination in any education program or activity that receives federal funding, but limited exceptions for gender segregation for physical education and sex education classes. Single-sex public schools and classes were generally only allowed under compelling circumstances, such as to remedy past discrimination.
With reform on everyone’s mind, some were looking at ways to improve the low performing schools, especially in low income urban areas. A movement for gender separation was gaining steam as some studies were suggesting that low-income students learned better when separated by sex. Though evidence was inconclusive, other studies were suggesting girls performed better in math and science when separated. This, along with concern about boys’ lower performance in secondary school led to a desire to experiment with single-sex public education.
This required a change in Title IX.
Amid objections from many stakeholders, the Department of Education relaxed the rules in 2006 to allow same-sex classes and school as long as enrollment was voluntary. Facilities and educational offerings had to be “substantially equal” for both genders. Furthermore, school districts would have to ensure that “comparable”¯ coed facilities and classes were available. While a staple among private institutions, single-sex instruction was a huge policy change for public education. The number of public schools exclusively for boys or girls was only two in 1995 and grew to 241 in 2006.
Today there are about 500 out of more than 90,000 public schools offering single-gender classes or schools.
In 2012, Americans Civil Liberties Union launched a multi-state initiative campaign called “Teach Kids, Not Stereotype”¯ to assess the increasing trend towards single-gender education in public schools. The 12 month investigation looked at 21 school districts covering 15 states, the majority of which were located in the south and Midwest. The results showed that the programs were based on discredited science and were out of compliance with Title IX.
In all the districts, the programs were based on the premise that hardwired physiological and development differences between boys and girls required different teaching methods. Teachers in single-sex classes incorporated gender stereotypes about capabilities and interests into their lessons. These included ideas that girls were not interested in math and boys preferred non-fiction reading material.
These are the same teaching methods just signed into law in Florida.
The ACLU has launched several administrative complaints in a half dozen states, including one filed this month to investigate Florida’s single-sex program. A lawsuit in West Virginia resulted in the single-gender program being stopped by a district court. They have also asked for an investigation and greater oversight of the programs by the DOE. The basis for the challenges argues that the single-sex teaching methods promote gender stereotypes and leads to unequal treatment in education, a clear violation of law. Furthermore, districts are spending millions of taxpayer dollars on programs that have shown little evidence of actually improving education.
Not to mention the reasoning behind creating single-sex environments is based on incorrect assumptions.
In a 2011 report titled “The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling,” eight social scientists discussed their research debunking many of the ideas advanced by single-sex schooling proponents. They found no neuroscience research supporting the idea that boys and girls were hardwired to learn differently. This idea had first been presented by psychologist Leonard Sax in his 2005 book “Why Gender Matters,”¯ which rationalized different educational training for boys and girls, such as being less critical of girls and using microphones when teaching boys because they didn’t hear as well. His research was based on obscure studies that were later debunked by many scientists.
Leonard Sax is also the founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and the creator of the training programs used for teachers in single-sex classes.
In February, a study released by the American Psychological Association showed that the benefits of single-sex education have been greatly overstated. They did an analysis of 55 years worth of data, covering 1.6 million students in 21 countries, as well as a separate analysis of the United States. The results showed there was no advantage for single-sex schooling for girls or boys.
Both studies pointed out that the different learning experiences of boys and girls were largely due to societal constructs and gender biases by the teachers.
There is documented evidence of teacher gender discriminatory practices in coed classes such as calling on boys more often than girls, and rewarding boys when they called out answers, yet reminding girls that they had to raise their hands. Boys are also more encouraged to figure out things on their own, whereas girls were more likely to be helped. This inherent bias is also embedded into single-sex education.
Most importantly, single-sex education may actually increase these biases.
As most single-gender experiences in public education is mainly on a per class basis, the separation reinforces the perceived differences. This inherent bias affects the confidence and expectations. If the expectation is that girls don’t like math, then girls internalize that and begin to believe they won’t be successful. If boys are always told to figure things out for themselves, they may internalize the message that seeking help is not desirable and devalue collaboration — a trait that is generally attributed to girls.
There is no doubt single-sex education is a preference for many students and their parents since a number of private institutions continue to offer the option. In public education, however, many question using millions of dollars of taxpayer funds to promote a costly system that is not addressing the problems it seeks to rectify. The problem lies not within the students, but the inherent biases in educators and the system.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision this month, it’s a good idea to remember that by promoting the idea of separation based on any trait, students are denied the most important lesson — learning how to live with others that aren’t like them.