By Sarah Rogers
Boys should be asked about what has happened in a story, while girls should be asked how the story made them feel.
Girls should not be given time limits on a test, but should be encouraged to take their shoes off in class because this helps them relax and think.
Boys are better than girls in math because their bodies receive daily surges of testosterone, while girls have equivalent mathematics skills only during the few days in their menstrual cycle when they have an estrogen surge.
If you guessed that these are educational tips from the 1950s, it would be understandable, but you would be wrong. Instead, they are current-day theories of the most prominent proponents of single-sex classes, Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian, whom school districts often hire to train their teachers. These widely discredited theories drive local and national trends in public school efforts to educate boys and girls in separate classrooms.
The ACLU is investigating several West Virginia public schools that have recently implemented single-sex educational programs. So, what's the big deal? Educators point to seemingly innocent reasons for single-sex classrooms without understanding the serious legal and social implications.
Some point to concerns that girls are intimidated by boys in math and science. Others casually assert that boys and girls have different learning styles which should be "celebrated," and some argue that separate classrooms are necessary to correct traditional inequalities between boys and girls. Most proponents assert that boys and girls are too distracting to one another because of "hormones," and some have even suggested that separating the sexes will combat the issue of peer bullying.
In fact, there is no credible research showing that separating boys and girls in school produces better academic outcomes. There is, however, credible research demonstrating that single-sex classes perpetuate sex stereotypes and result in unequal educational opportunities for boys and girls.
Students who do not fit neatly into stereotypes of how boys and girls should act will feel excluded by their differences and pressured to conform to gender norms doled out by their teachers and mentors. Because gay and lesbian students are especially vulnerable to peer-bullying based on failure to conform to gender stereotypes, there is a real concern that single-sex classes will worsen the bullying problem in our local schools.
It is illegal for public schools to discriminate on the basis of sex, and federal law prohibits single-sex classrooms within co-ed schools, with a few narrow exceptions. In addition, the U.S. Constitution prohibits single-sex education that is justified by stereotypes, such as outdated notions regarding boys' and girls' capabilities in different subjects. The ACLU has successfully challenged single-sex educational programs in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Wisconsin.
Failures of the education system do not justify ignoring the sinister history of "separate but equal" in our nation's schools. It is understandable that educators may be desperate to try anything that will change the status quo, but schools play a crucial role in shaping how young people view themselves and others. Instead of limiting children with dressed-up versions of old stereotypes, we should all be focusing on the real problems with our schools: overcrowding, underfunding and federal funding incentives that force educators to obsess over test scores. Sex-segregation is only a distraction from the real work that lies ahead.
Rogers is the new staff attorney for the ACLU Foundation of West Virginia, pending admission to the State Bar.