“Science” Says No to Single-Sex Education

By Galen Sherwin, Staff Attorney, ACLU Women’s Rights Project

When it comes to public education, there is no doubt that we are in a crisis, particularly when it comes to low-income and minority students. Unfortunately, the search for solutions has led to a movement across the country to establish single-sex classrooms and schools, many of which rely on the faulty theory that girls and boys learn differently and need to be educated separately. This is not a solution. Our sons and daughters deserve schools free from discrimination and stereotypes, including gender stereotypes.

Last week’s news out of Madison, WI, indicates that state education officials share this concern. They have put a hold on a proposed sex-segregated school, Madison Prep, asking the school’s proponents to provide scientifically based evidence showing that separating boys and girls will get educational results.

That will be much harder for the school to do following the publication of an article in the prestigious journal, Science, debunking the “pseudo-science” behind this troubling trend. According to the authors, sex-segregated education, “is deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence. There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex (SS) education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.”

What single-sex education looks like in the classroom can be downright scary. For example, influential proponents assert that boys are naturally better at math due to daily surges of testosterone, and that full female participation in athletic programs is “unrealistic” due to girls’ biology. Commonly used training materials advise that boys should be shouted at and allowed to jump around during class, while girls should be allowed to take off their shoes and should not be given timed tests because they don’t perform well under stress.

The truth is that all children learn differently, regardless of sex, and the differences between individual boys and individual girls are much greater than the difference between boys as a group and girls as a group. We’ve all known kids who don’t conform to gender stereotypes like the girl who likes to run around and toss footballs, the quiet boy who prefers to work collaboratively.

The Madison proposal offers many of the elements that we know work in education: extra resources, smaller class size, and an academically focused curriculum — and many in the community have welcomed it for that reason. But the bottom line is that coeducation is not the problem, and sex segregation is not the solution. The Science article pounds home that in an era of evidence-based policy-making — and severe budget cuts — it makes no sense to adopt an educational policy that is founded on both faulty data and outdated views about the “nature” of men and women. We hope that officials in Madison take heed and remove sex stereotypes from the equation.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    An interesting article. I’d like to comb through their references cited more thoroughly since those are where the actual data and analysis is.

    It does seem that there is some very strange enduring appeal to sex segregation, even among some feminists, even in the face of all evidence and steamrollering over the intractable problem of how to deal with people who don’t fall into the rigid gender binary. I wonder why it has such a lasting attraction.

  2. Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I went to an all girls school for high school and it was not like this at all. I feel like the source for this is making a huge generalization and honestly, I’m a little upset about it. I only went to one all girls high school, but talking to other girls who went to similar schools, all of them seemed to encourage ambition in areas such as math and science (the classes were highly competitive) and my high school in particular was rated as the best sports school in the state. We were not taught to follow strict gender rules, nor were we expected to follow the religion of the school. We were also not taught abstinence only education. I became feminist because of a high school teacher. The reason I’m posting is to show that not all single gender schools harm their students. I found mine to be an escape from traditional gender roles. I do believe, however, that there are cases in which these schools can reinforce them, but this is not a blanket issue. I am better for my single gender education and I don’t want anyone else who attended one of these schools to be stereotyped because of an article like this.

  3. Posted September 26, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the link to the summary article. I had read about this in the NYtimes, but for the life of me I could not find the journal article proper, and your linked summary gives me some of the nitty-gritty scientific details.

    The NYtimes article (as well as this blogpost) did point out a couple arguments that I would want answered by the pro Single Sex side. The first is, “According to theory, separating the groups should result in a greater instance of stereotyping, how should this be addressed?” The second is, “How is this really any different from ‘Separate but Equal?’”

    Mentioned Articles:
    NYtimes piece: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/23/educatio…glesexeducation

  4. Posted September 26, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. I went to a sex segregated school — they’re very common in middle class communities in Australia because private schools get a fairly decent amount of government funding, were founded by religious groups and have a much better reputation than state schools (in my state, we have a ridiculously complicated system for grading yr 12 students — they’re ranked in their class and then ranked in the state. Schools with entry criteria always do better in that sort of system). The long and the short of it is that all the sex segregated schools fall into a group with more resources at school and at home, are more likely to have parents with the time to help them with their education and graduate with better marks (nearly all of my cohort studying law are from private schools). Any study in my state, and probably in the rest of Australia would always be inherently flawed because of those differences.

    My experience wasn’t too bad — my school did have a strong community focus, but the alumni all agree that it helped build us into strong competent people even if it at times lacked focus on academics, we had a decent budget for sports and good teachers for both science and humanities (although arts and music were also specialities). Down sides were that uni was the first time I interacted with the opposite sex for 5 years, which probably delayed the realisation that I really wasn’t attracted to them and made for some awkward moments; a fair number of jokes about my school producing women who married doctors (thankfully as opposed to another girls school with a more academic focus); stories about the debating team once getting spat on in the recent past while walking to a debate with a boys school; and the fact that the sexist and outdated views of the school founder were still prescribed reading for teachers, even if they’d long since realised that girls can learn maths.

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