ACLU to Districts: ‘Cease and Desist’ Single-Sex Education

By Erik W. Robelen — June 01, 2012 5 min read
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The American Civil Liberties Union recently began sending out “cease and desist” letters to individual schools and districts to halt single-sex programs that the legal advocacy group suggests may violate federal and state laws.

The ACLU says that based on information it has received, some schools are requiring students who do not wish to participate in segregated classrooms to enroll in another school, while others failed to alert parents that they had the choice to opt-out of such single-sex classes, according to a press release. Other examples include schools that apparently offer some classes to one sex but not the other.

“We all want to fix failing schools, but co-education is not the problem, and single-sex education is not the answer,” said Galen Sherwin, a staff attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, in the press release. “Over and over, we find that these programs are based on stereotypes that limit opportunities by reinforcing outdated ideas about how boys and girls behave.”

The ACLU of Florida also asked the state’s education department to investigate programs across the state after data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request indicated the program appears to violate state and federal law.

Single-sex education is not new to public schools. The issued gained greater attention in the mid 2000s when the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush issued regulations relaxing prior federal rules that effectively barred public schools from educating boys and girls separately on a widespread basis. Those rules indicated that same-sex programs must be related to improving the achievement of students, providing diverse educational opportunities, or meeting the needs of particular students. The rules state that for each single-sex program, a school must provide a “substantially equal” program for the other sex, but that program may be coeducational.

[UPDATE (11:20 a.m.) Hat tip to Mike Petrilli from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who tells me that it was none other than former Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., along with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Tex., who pushed for revising federal rules on single-sex education. They did so through an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

During debate on June 7, 2001, Clinton said: “Certainly, there should not be any obstacle to providing single-sex choice within the public school system. ... This amendment clearly states that school districts should have the opportunity to spend Federal educational funds on promoting single-sex opportunities so long as they are consistent with applicable law. It also makes clear that the U.S. Department of Education should clarify to our school districts what they can and cannot do.]

In its 2005 notice in the Federal Register announcing the rules, the Education Department said: “Existing education research suggests that single-sex education may provide benefits to students under certain circumstances.”

The regulations represented the Education Department’s revised interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funds. (Speaking of which, the 40th anniversary of that law’s enactment is coming later this month. Stay tuned for a special package of stories from Education Week pegged to the anniversary.)

A news story from Reuters said that single-sex education has expanded considerably since the revised federal regulations were issued, and that as many 300 public schools since that time have begun to offer single-sex education.

Research on the benefits of single-sex education has been mixed, though some studies and researchers are beginning to raise serious questions about the practice.

A study published last September in the journal Science found “no empirical evidence” that segregating students by sex improves education, but that there is compelling evidence that it can increase gender stereotyping among students and adults.

Meanwhile, another recent study on public schools in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago found that, while single-sex schools may benefit female students who prefer a single-sex environment, they are not inherently beneficial for boys or most girls.

An EdWeek Commentary published in February offers a skeptical view of the value of single-sex classes. The authors contend that despite the growing popularity of the practice, a “consensus is emerging among scientists that single-sex classrooms are not the answer to kids’ achievement issues. This fact appears to be true even for students of color, who are often seen as those most likely to be helped by sex-segregated classrooms.”

For a more sympathetic view on single-sex education, check out this 2008 article published in Education Next. In it, freelance writer and former Life magazine editor Peter Meyer concludes: “It is a new world, especially for women, and serious educators seem to realize that single-sex schools and classrooms are not a threat, but another arrow in the quiver of education quality.”

My colleague Andrew Ujifusa also blogged about the ACLU’s action the other day over at State EdWatch. In it, he noted that EdWeek several years ago published a Commentary by Leonard Sax, the executive director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education.

In it, he highlighted what he called several “success stories” in the use of single-sex classrooms in public schools, but also pointed to places where it seemed to make no difference or even was harmful. Ultimately, Sax contended that single-gender classes should remain voluntary “for the forseeable future.”

He also cautioned: “We are a long way from having a well-established set of best practices for gender-specific education.”

As part of its campaign, the ACLU has sent letters to school districts in not only Florida but also Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama. The organization said it will continue to probe the issue in those states and elsewhere, and call on state governments to investigate possible violations. Further, the ACLU vowed that if practices it deems unlawful are not ended, the organization will consider further legal action.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.