School Sex Segregation Loses Ground

Sex-stereotyping is rife in single-sex classrooms in U.S. public schools. Boys are encouraged to move around, girls are told to sit still and think in terms of cosmetics and wedding dresses. This is why the ACLU victory in West Virginia is so huge.

Credit: woodleywonderworks on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)- Good news: Slowly but surely, the crusade against toxic sex stereotypes taught in public schools seems to be winning the day.

A big sign of that came earlier this month, when a West Virginia school board suspended a single-sex program at a middle school after the American Civil Liberties Union raised serious legal concerns with the program, including reliance on outdated sex stereotypes.

The ACLU also announced earlier this month that it was sending demand letters to school districts in Florida, Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama insisting that they take steps to end single-sex programs that “rely on and promote archaic and harmful sex stereotypes.” The group is launching a new campaign called “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” to drive the point home.

After about a decade of rapid expansion of boys-only or girls-only classrooms in public education, the reality is sinking in that too many of these classrooms are based on junk science about the natures of boys and girls.

Single-sex advocates argue, often very successfully, that the brains, hormones and basic natures of girls and boys are so different that they should be taught separately.

Chief among those calling for more segregation are Leonard Sax, president of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, based in Exton, Pa., and Michael Gurian, head of the Gurian Institute, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

They have pushed this notion so hard that it has come to be regarded as the conventional wisdom by much of the news media. Sax and Gurian are media darlings, and they run teacher workshops around the country and are continually asked to speak at education conferences.

Swaying Public Schools

In our research, we were surprised to find out how much sway Sax-Gurian seemed to be having over public schools.

For example, in 2009 the “Today Show” profiled a single-sex school in suburban St. Louis. The segment began with a video showing boys engaging in calisthenics and girls sitting quietly at their desks reading and writing. Boys were permitted to learn anywhere in the classroom, but girls were not. In South Carolina, teachers instructed girls in chemistry by analyzing cosmetics. And the state set the goal of having sex-segregated classrooms available to every child within five years.

In an Alabama middle school, teachers were encouraged to gear writing examples to gender when possible. A writing example prompt for a boy might be what he would most like to do, go hunting or drive on a racetrack. Girls, in contrast, were told to write about their dream wedding dress or their perfect birthday party

In his 2001 book “Boys and Girls Learn Differently,” Gurian claimed that only about 30 percent of girls have the right brain structures to do well in science and math. Sax argues that girls learn best by sitting quietly, close to teachers, while boys need to move around and learn by doing. He claims that boys do not deal well with emotion, so he suggests that literature teachers not ask boys about characters' emotions, but rather focus only on what the characters actually do

The ACLU notes, “Sax says that girls do badly under stress, so they should not be given time limits on a test; and that boys who like to read, do not enjoy contact sports and do not have a lot of close male friends should be firmly disciplined, required to spend time with ‘normal males' and made to play sports.”

A Huge Break

Anti-segregationists looking to refute all this got a huge break in 2011 when the prestigious journal Science ran an article by eight prominent scientists entitled “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling.” The lead author on the piece was professor Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College, past president of the American Psychological Association.

They wrote that single-sex education in public schools “is deeply misguided and often justified by weak, cherry-picked or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence.”

And they added, “There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students' academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.”

Sax attacked the Science authors, calling them “The Angry Eight.” But it seems that school administrators, teachers and even the media are starting to listen to the real science, not the junk science.

In fact, recent research finds the differences between girls' and boys' brains are trivial. Lise Eliot, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, conducted an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from birth to adolescence and concluded, in her book, “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” that there is “surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children's brains.”

Segregating public school classrooms by sex, as the Science article points out, is a wrongheaded search for a “magic bullet” to fix the problems of U. S. public schools.

But the bullet misfired; the quick fix didn't fix anything. Real science tells us that it's time to abandon this failed experiment.

Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, and Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers are the co-authors of “The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children” (Columbia University Press).

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