Single-Sex Classrooms: Good or Bad for Kids?

Takepart.comJuly 10, 2012

Anyone who has ever attended a public school may have at one time or another wished that the opposite sex could be seated in an entirely different room (or building). These days, there are a growing number of people who believe separating the sexes offers children the opportunity to grow and learn with confidence and without pesky hormonal distractions. In fact, single-sex education is on the rise. According to a recent Associated Press report:

Single-sex classes began proliferating after the U.S. Education Department relaxed restrictions in 2006. With research showing boys, particularly minority boys, are graduating at lower rates than girls and faring worse on tests, plenty of schools were paying attention.

In 2002, only about a dozen schools were separating the sexes, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, an advocacy group. Now, an estimated 500 public schools across the country offer some all-boy and all-girl classrooms.

The American Civil Liberties Union is not pleased with this growing trend. In May, they launched a campaign called Teach Kids Not Stereotypes to let public schools offering optional single-sex classes (legally parents must be allowed to choose if they want their son or daughter to participate in single-sex classes) know that they are clashing with the U.S. Constitution and Title IX (federal civil rights law barring sex discrimination in education), and perpetuating harmful and archaic stereotypes.

Coeducation is not the problem, and single-sex education is not the answer.

Galen Sherwin, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, told TakePart that because 2012 is the 40th anniversary of Title IX, it was the right time to launch such a campaign. The ACLU, she says, had for years been playing a game of “whack the mole” by trying to knock out single-sex programs around the country while more and more just kept popping up.

“We were not getting to the root of the problem, we were not affecting change on the broader level,” she says. “To many people, single-sex teaching sounds benign. If the public were aware of statements about how boys and girls have different learning abilities and capacities, they would be more incensed.”

According to the ACLU, two of these stereotypes are that boys who like to read should be forced to play more sports and that girls need more time on tests because they don’t perform well under stress.

Since implementing the campaign, the ACLU has sent cease-and-desist letters, asked state officials to investigate, and prompted public record requests on single-sex programs in at least 15 states, including Illinois, Florida, Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama. “We all want to fix failing schools. But coeducation is not the problem, and single-sex education is not the answer,” Sherwin said in the ACLU’s press release. “Over and over we find that these programs are based on stereotypes that limit opportunities by reinforcing outdated ideas about how boys and girls behave.”

Sex segregation in the classroom has long been a debated topic. Proponents of girls-only or boys-only classes say that male and females learn differently and should be, therefore, taught differently. The Associated Press article describes a school in Middleton, Ohio (one of the schools to whom the ACLU has sent a cease-and-desist letter) where the boys prepare for a test by running; the girls prepare by engaging in calming yoga.

However, as mentioned in the AP article, Diane F. Halpern co-authored a review of studies in Science last year and came to the conclusion that segregating the sexes in school not only isn’t helpful when it comes to learning, but it also promotes crippling pigeonholing of the children. “Stereotyping increases so we really do have lots of data that says it's just not supported,” Halpern told the AP.

The ACLU is making progress, so far halting three single-sex programs. In June, they helped identify and suspend a program riddled with legal problems in Huntington, W. Va., where the local board of education finally ruled that the school was not adhering to the parent-optional law or providing any valid research behind the separation.

“Hopefully this will send a signal to schools across the state that single-sex programs are not a magic bullet,” said Brenda Green, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia in a press release following word that this program was suspended. “This is especially true in light of mounting evidence that separating students on the basis of sex does not actually improve academic outcomes. Our children deserve real solutions, not fake science.”

How do you feel about single-sex classrooms? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.