Law & Courts

New U.S. Rules Boost Single-Sex Schooling

By Michelle R. Davis — October 30, 2006 6 min read
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Ninth graders at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn., flow through school doors together each morning, but when they head to class, they’re separated by gender.

This year, the school is experimenting to learn whether educating its 9th graders—who as a class had high dropout rates and discipline problems stemming from interaction between boys and girls—in single-sex classrooms can boost their success.

Last week, public schools across the country were given the green light by the federal government to try the same experiment if they wish.

The U.S. Department of Education issued final regulations that definitively state it’s legal to educate boys and girls separately under certain conditions. Though the Bush administration had signaled two years ago it planned to change federal rules to allow broader use of single-sex education in public schools, many schools were reluctant to take the plunge until the legal ambiguities were settled.

“Schools need to look at their own data to see if it makes sense for their schools and communities,” said Alisha N. Kiner, the principal of Booker T. Washington High. “I don’t think they should just do it because it’s working in other schools.”

Worry About Stereotypes

The new regulations, which take effect Nov. 24, relax past Education Department rules that effectively barred public schools from educating boys and girls separately on a widespread basis. They say single-sex programs must be related to improving the achievement of students, providing diverse educational opportunities, or meeting the needs of particular students.

Single-Sex Schools

The U.S. Department of Education issued final regulations last week that make it easier for public schools to educate boys and girls separately. The rules, which take effect Nov. 24, say schools:

    Must have an “important objective,” such as to improve educational achievement of their students.

    Must provide a “substantially equal coeducational class” in the same subject. In some cases, an equal single-sex class for the other gender may be required.

    Must make student enrollment in the single-sex class voluntary.

    Must re-evaluate their single-sex programs every two years to make sure they’re meeting federal requirements.

    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

    The regulations also say schools must treat boys and girls evenhandedly, though that would not necessarily mean creating an all-boys program and an all-girls program. The rules require that for each single-sex program, a school must provide a “substantially equal” program, but that program may be coeducational.

    The regulations also require that “intangible features,” such as the reputation of specific teachers and geographic accessibility, must factor into the determinations of whether programs are “substantially equal.” Schools must re-evaluate their single-sex programs every two years to ensure they comply with the federal regulations.

    But the new regulations don’t resolve the long-running debate over whether boys and girls should be educated separately at all.

    “Existing education research suggests that single-sex education may provide benefits to students under certain circumstances,” the Education Department said in its notice in the Federal Register on Oct. 25 announcing the new rules. The department pointed to a review of research on the topic it published in 2005.

    Critics, particularly women’s advocacy groups, said the new regulations threatened to undo progress for girls in the classroom.

    “We believe these regulations invite schools to establish programs that violate the Constitution and expose themselves to liability,” said Emily J. Martin, the deputy director of the women’s rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City, who said her group is considering legal action. “It invites schools to create programs based on overbroad and inaccurate gender stereotypes.”

    Some policymakers aren’t happy with the Education Department’s action, either.

    “The department’s new regulation turns back the clock on civil rights protection by allowing schools to segregate by gender, without effective protections against discrimination or unfair stereotyping,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement. “Single-sex education can be beneficial in some circumstances, but this regulation could return us to the days of separate and unequal.”

    But supporters of the new policy, including practitioners who say single-sex experiments have made a difference for students, say the option should be available. Ms. Kiner said discipline problems among the 9th graders at Booker T. Washington High in Memphis have fallen by 60 percent and students seem more engaged in learning.

    Not a Mandate

    The Education Department stressed in its announcement that single-sex education is completely voluntary for districts and schools and just one more way to offer parents more choices in public education.

    “This is not a federal mandate,” Stephanie J. Monroe, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a conference call with reporters last week. “This is an option that can be helpful to some students.”

    The regulations issued last week represent the Education Department’s latest interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funds.

    Title IX permits public schools to have single-gender classes in some cases, such as for physical education and sex education.

    But the Education Department’s strict interpretation of the law early on, and subsequent court rulings, effectively scared most public schools away from the idea. The move toward greater flexibility for single-sex classes and programs stems from a clause, written by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, inserted in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that called for the secretary of education to issue new rules on such programs.

    “Coeducational classes often provide the best atmosphere for learning, but studies have shown that in some circumstances students do better in a single-sex classroom,” Sen. Hutchison said in a statement last week.

    Leonard Sax, the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Education, based in Poolesville, Md., said many schools were waiting for the final regulations before moving forward with single-gender education programs. He estimated that before the department issued proposed regulations on the issue in 2004, only a few public schools had implemented single-sex programs. Now there are 241 public schools that offer single-sex programs, he said.

    “So many schools want to try this,” he said. “The reason at least half the schools expressed interest in this is they’ve got concerns about AYP [adequate yearly progress]. They’re looking for something that can improve grades and test scores and it doesn’t cost anything.”

    The No Child Left Behind Act calls for schools to meet annual education targets or face consequences.

    Mr. Sax, who pointed to some studies that have found success with single-sex programs, cautioned that schools should not undertake such programs without careful study and planning.

    “We urge them not to jump into it,” he said. “Putting girls in one classroom and boys in another classroom doesn’t accomplish much by itself.”

    However, Lisa M. Maatz, the director of public policy at the American Association of University Women, in Washington, said a lack of definitive research on whether single-sex education works should move educators to use resources where they will make the most difference—such as shrinking class sizes and hiring more experienced teachers.

    “This is putting the cart before the horse,” Ms. Maatz said. “The whole point of the No Child Left Behind Act was to use rigorous, evidence-based methodology. To not have the same standard here is mystifying to me.”

    A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as New U.S. Rules Boost Single-Sex Schooling


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