Although the headline of a December 22 Atlantic article was “The Resurgence of Single-Sex Education,” a less misleading title might have been “The Resurgence of the Campaign against Single Sex-Education.”
Because every time single-sex education finds a constituency, it seems there are people waiting in the wings to shut it down. This time it’s the ACLU and prominent academics—including Juliet A. Williams, author of The Separation Solution? Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality.
Instead of rejoicing that at last the single-sex school, once of prerogative only of the affluent, is becoming an option for more low-income families, these folks are mounting a campaign against the upswing. It began in the 1990s when less affluent families, facing the prospect of sending their kids to failing or dangerous public schools, began to lobby for the single-sex option for their kids. Generally speaking, parents of girls wanted them free from the pressures of impressing boys. And parents of boys wanted teachers who could be firmer and espouse certain ideals of—if you’ll excuse the politically incorrect term—manliness.
The push for single-sex public schools for kids from low-income families became so pronounced that the Obama administration had to hold its nose and issue guidelines for establishing such schools. They stipulate that there must be a compelling educational reason for setting up a single-sex school and that “gender stereotypes” are strictly forbidden.
According to the guidelines, parents must opt-in rather than simply having children assigned to one of these nefarious institutions. Unfortunately for the critics of single-sex public education, parents seem to be doing just that: The waiting lists for successful single-sex public schools such as the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy in Dallas, where young men wear ties and blazers, or the Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School, which enrolls girls from low-income families and is considered one of Texas’ best public schools, are long. In 2004 there were 34 single-sex public schools in the U.S.; today there are around 850.
Williams concedes in the Atlantic that these schools may have been established with “the best of intentions” but rates the results as unimpressive and, moreover, worries that single-sex schools play a part in “reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes.”
Indeed single-sex education has become a feminist issue. University of Texas psychologist Rebecca Bigler, told the New York Times last year that “segregating” the sexes can lead to prejudice. “You say there’s a problem with sexism,” Ms. Bigler said, “and instead of addressing the sexism, you just remove one sex.”
She has it backwards, though. If there is a problem with sexism (and I don’t necessarily buy it), maybe an enclave where sentences can be diagramed in peace without the glares of the opposite sex on you is the solution.
Meanwhile the ACLU has taken up the issue. “The ACLU has long fought to end the practice of separating boys and girls in public schools based on discredited ‘science’ that is rooted in outdated gender stereotypes,” an item on the organization’s website explains. The name of the ACLU program is “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes.”
The organization has filed suits against public school districts in Florida, Idaho, and Wisconsin for their use of single-sex schools. It managed to force a school in West Virginia to discontinue its single-sex school classes for at least two years. But is there any real evidence that single-sex education is harmful?
The research on both sides is ambiguous at best. Often cited by those hostile to single-sex schools is a 2011 critique in Science magazine. It argued that there was evidence that single-sex education “legitimizes institutional sexism.” But the article was written by eight academics who were active in the fight against single-sex education. One of them, Lise Eliot, predicted that in the future single-sex schools, including private colleges, could see their federal funding withdrawn if they remain single-sex.
We don’t have academic studies to prove that single-sex education works well either. There is evidence that there are fewer disciplinary problems in single-sex schools. And some parents see value in that alone and want single-sex education to be a choice for their children. Who is the ACLU to deny them?
One reason that the war against single-sex education is so hot right now is that, if single-sex public schools were to prove successful, it might be considered evidence that gender differences exist. So even if the cost of this battle is reducing educational choices for low-income families, liberals will dig in their heels.