Education Opinion

Single-Sex Schools Are a Civil Rights Assault

By Contributing Blogger — May 21, 2017 4 min read
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By Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Diane F. Halpern, and Juliet A. Williams

For those committed to the values of the public education system, it’s not just Washington D.C. we have to worry about these days. These values are under attack right here in California where members of the State Assembly are considering AB 23, which aims to circumvent existing civil rights laws in an effort to promote single-sex education in California public schools.

If you haven’t heard about AB 23, you are not alone. The reason why a plan to legitimate segregation in public schools hasn’t garnered more attention? Because it’s about sex, not race. There was a time not too long ago when the idea that people could be readily divided based on biological characteristics seemed destined for the dustbin of history. But in California today, these ideas are making a comeback thanks to the Trojan Horse of school choice. In a way, it makes sense. People like to have choices in educational programs and in other areas of life. But not all choices are equally good or fair.

Supporters of AB 23 undoubtedly want to do right by our kids, but they are going about it in the wrong way. AB 23 is sponsored by Assembly Member Sebastian Ridley Thomas (D-Los Angeles) who cites two studies in support of single-sex education—the “California Experiment” undertaken in the 1990s, and a systematic review commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005. Ironically, neither of these sources support single-sex education and both suggest serious negative consequences.

The “California Experiment” dates back to the late 1990s, when state funds were used to launch single-sex public schools across the state. Despite having more resources than traditional public schools, students showed no significant academic improvement. After just two years of operation, four of the six districts closed their single-sex academies; a fifth district closed theirs after three years; and the sixth eventually became a coeducational school.

Since that time, the evidence has continued to weigh against the supposed benefits of single-sex education. As recently as 2014, researchers analyzing results from 184 studies representing 1.6 million children in grades K-12 found no meaningful differences among students in single-sex versus coeducational programs. Notably, these studies examined multiple outcomes including mathematics performance, mathematics attitudes, science performance, educational aspirations, and self-concept.

Despite the lack of evidence in support of single-sex education, unvetted education consultants—who are generously compensated by school districts with public dollars—peddle the idea to parents and teachers that learning differences between boys and girls are “hard-wired,” meaning they are innate in the brain and other parts of the nervous system. No matter that neuroscientific evidence points in the opposite direction: that when it comes to learning, biology is not destiny because experience constantly “rewires” the brain. Casting the facts aside, evangelists of single sex education, such as Leonard Sax, make outrageous pronouncements about differences between the educational needs of boys and girls, preaching that girls need warmer classrooms and that boys need brighter lights, and that girls should learn in cooperative circles while boys need to sit side-by-side to learn effectively. These claims are derived from stereotypes, not science.

Given existing levels of frustration with the public school system, the desire to throw anything at the yawning achievement gap between our most successful and our most underserved students is understandable. This frustration likely explains why, even though achievement gaps between racial groups are greater than gender differences among them, some supporters believe that sex segregation will be the solution for boys and girls of color. But addressing injustices rooted in institutional and economic racism with gender-based reforms doesn’t just confuse matters; it opens the door to deepening inequalities. Today, a vastly disproportionate amount of resources are being directed to programs exclusively for boys of color, leaving out equally disadvantaged girls of color.

Especially given the current administration in Washington D.C., now is no time for Californians to toy with the civil rights of the vulnerable among us, which surely includes our public school students. AB 23 abandons hard-won protections against educational discrimination to promote unproven remedies for ailing public schools. We have enough to fight for these days in defending public education against those who would seek to undo the entire enterprise. Let’s not put equality on the auction block as well.

Kimberlé W. Crenshaw is a Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles and Columbia Law School. She is director of the Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS), which she founded in 2011, and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum. Diane F. Halpern is Dean Emerita of Social Sciences at Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute and Professor of Psychology, Emerita at Claremont McKenna College. She is a past president of the American Psychological Association (2004, and her recent books include Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities (4th ed.), and Women at the Top: Powerful Leaders Tell Us How to Combine Work and Family. Juliet A. Williams is Professor of Gender Studies and Chair of the Social Science Interdepartmental Program at UCLA. She is author of The Separation Solution?: Single-Sex Public Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality (University of California Press, 2016).

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