Public schools will now be able to educate boys and girls separately, if they choose, without fear of violating federal laws and regulations prohibiting sex discrimination.
In a much-anticipated release, the U.S. Department of Education today announced final regulations on single-sex education that permit public schools to group students by gender, as long as the education for students of both sexes is “substantially equal.” The single-sex education program must be related to improving the achievement of students, providing diverse educational opportunities, or meeting the needs of particular students.
The final regulations are scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Oct. 25 and will take effect Nov. 24.
Two years ago, the Education Department signaled its intent to relax longstanding regulations that effectively prohibited schools from educating boys and girls separately in most cases. In March 2004, the department unveiled proposed regulations very similar to the final rules being promulgated this week.
“Research shows that some students may learn better in single-sex education environments,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in an Oct. 24 statement. “The Department of Education is committed to giving communities more choices in how they go about offering varied learning environments to their students.”
Though backers of single-sex education hailed the final regulations as a long-awaited victory, critics—particularly women’s advocacy organizations—worried that the proliferation of such programs could harm students’ education.
“This leaves the door wide open to allowing schools to respond to parental requests that can be based on stereotypes and to adopt their own stereotypical thinking about boys and girls,” said Jocelyn Samuels, the vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington.
‘Not A Federal Mandate’
The final regulations require schools to treat boys and girls evenhandedly. Where a school offers a single-sex class in a subject, for example, it may be required to also offer a “substantially equal” coeducational class in the same subject, but not always, Stephanie J. Monroe, the assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office for civil rights, said during a telephone press conference on Oct. 24.
The regulations also require that schools and districts evaluate their single-sex classes at least every two years to ensure they are complying with federal law.
Ms. Monroe cautioned that the Education Department is not endorsing single-sex education, on which research studies have found mixed results.
“This is not a federal mandate,” she said. “This is an option that can be helpful to some students.”
The final regulations will be the latest interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funds. Title IX expressly permits public schools to have single-gender classes in certain physical education and sex education courses and allows single-sex programs for remedial purposes—for example if girls are floundering in math—as long as a district offers comparable programs for each sex.
But the Education Department’s strict interpretation of the law and subsequent court rulings effectively scared most public schools away from the idea of trying single-sex classes, said Leonard Sax, the founder of the National Association for Single Sex Education, based in Poolesville, Md. He estimated that before the proposed regulations were issued in 2004, only a few schools had implemented single-sex educational programs. Now there are more than 200, he said, and many more districts were waiting for the “legal limbo” surrounding the topic to be cleared up with the release of the final regulations.
“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 federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that schools meet annual education targets, known as AYP, or face consequences.
A Cautionary Note
But Mr. Sax, who pointed to some studies that have found success with such programs, cautioned that schools should not undertake single-sex 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.”
And he said small schools and districts may have a hard time implementing single-sex programs under the regulations.
However, Lisa M. Maatz, the director of public policy at the American Association of University Women, based in Washington, said the lack of definitive research on whether single-sex education works should be pushing schools and districts to use resources where they will make the most difference—shrinking class sizes and getting more experienced teachers, for example.
“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.”