Rights and Wrongs in the Debate over Single-Sex Schooling
60 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2013 Last revised: 20 Aug 2013
Date Written: January 7, 2013
Over the past two decades, the question of publicly supported single-sex education has provoked heated controversy. Most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union has mounted a broad scale attack on such programs. In a series of court challenges and cease-and-desist letters sent to school districts, the ACLU has charged that certain policies and classroom practices violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. More generally, the group maintains that separating students on the basis of sex violates the “separate is inherently unequal” principle of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and fails to meet the “exceedingly persuasive” justification standard of United States v. Virginia (1996), the case declaring unconstitutional the exclusion of women from the state-supported Virginia Military Institute. The ACLU further argues that revised Title IX regulations adopted by the federal Department of Education in 2006, allowing separate classes in coeducational public schools, are unacceptable as a matter of law and policy. A widely disseminated article entitled, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” signed by eight prominent psychologists and neuroscientists and published in 2011 in the peer-reviewed journal Science, has lent scientific legitimacy to the ACLU’s legal claims. The authors maintain that rationales based on male-female brain differences lack scientific support and promote sex stereotypes, that such programs lack conclusive evidence as to their benefits, and that they are harmful to students. These developments are now shaping the debate on single-sex schooling across the globe, with serious implications for education policy and practice in the United States.
This essay uses the ACLU challenges and the Science article as a framework for examining the complex forces both inspiring and derailing the recent revival of single-sex programs, the rights and wrongs that animate disagreements over the merits of the approach, and the measures needed to set it on a course that is legally defensible and pedagogically sound. In the process, it critically examines a sample of studies cited in the Science article, as well as countervailing findings from the United States and abroad, weighing cultural, political, and economic factors that may affect policy choices and student outcomes in diverse settings. It explores claims by proponents that coed schools historically have “shortchanged” girls, and those that look to single-sex programs to remedy the current “boy problem” of academic underachievement.
Overall, the essay supports the ACLU’s efforts to weed out impermissible practices that rely on hard-wired biological differences between the sexes. Nonetheless, it opposes the organization’s sweeping attack on single-sex education, rejecting the faulty analogy between racially segregated and current separate-sex programs, and presenting social rationales and empirical evidence supporting the benefits that “at risk” economically disadvantaged students gain from evenhandedly designed separate schools in particular.
In the end, it calls for researchers to look more broadly at measures of program success beyond achievement test scores, for educators to focus on individual student development rather than sex-based differences, for the federal Office for Civil Rights to take a more active role in monitoring programs and providing technical assistance on legal compliance, and for those who shape the discourse – whether scholars, researchers, activists, or political commentators – to recognize the global dimensions of single-sex schooling and to actively stimulate dialogue across political and cultural borders.
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