The Bizarre, Misguided Campaign to Get Rid of Single-Sex Classrooms

The “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” initiative thinks separating students by gender is equivalent to racial segregation.

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Wealthy families have always had the option of sending their children to all-male or all-female schools, but parents of modest means have rarely had that choice. That changed in 2001, when four female senators sponsored legislation that sanctioned single-sex classes and academies in public schools. Today, there are more than 500 public schools that offer single-sex classes and 116 public all-girl or all-boy academies. Many are in struggling urban neighborhoods and many have proven to be hugely successful.

The Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School in Dallas opened in 2004 and enrolls 473 girls in grades six through 12. More than 70 percent of the students are from economically disadvantaged homes and more than 90 percent are minorities.  Its success has been dazzling. In less than a decade, the school has won multiple academic achievement awards and, according to U.S. News & World Report, is one of the top public schools in Texas.

In 2011, Dallas opened a comparable public school for young men: the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy. Before opening its doors, the principal, Nakia Douglas, spent a year visiting schools throughout the United States—including many boys’ schools—to determine best practices for educating young men. More than half the teachers at BOMLA are male and there is massive focus on areas where many boys need extra help: organizational skills, time management, self-control, perseverance, and above all, academic achievement. Wearing ties and blazers, the students are instructed in the art of becoming young gentlemen.  The principal’s research taught him that boys will go to astonishing lengths to defend their team. So (inspired in part by his reading of Harry Potter), he divided the academy into four houses—Expedition, Justice, Decree, and Alliance—which compete against one another for points earned through good grades, community service, reading books, and athletics. Douglas and his colleagues have created a school where young men can’t help but flourish. There is now a long waiting list for entry into this academy.

Single-sex academies like these two Dallas schools not only benefit the students fortunate enough to attend but also are a part of the solution to the growing boy gap in education and the persistent girl gap in math and science. Today millions of American boys are languishing academically. Boys in all ethnic groups and social classes are far less likely than their sisters to feel connected to school, to earn good grades, or to attend college. Girls, by comparison, are thriving academically, but are still far less likely than boys to enter fields in science and technology. Boys and girls, taken as groups, have different interests, propensities, and needs. These academies can provide important lessons on how to educate our children more effectively.

What sensible person would call these programs and others like them morally and legally suspect? And yet the American Civil Liberties Union says they are. It has launched a major campaign called “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” to discredit and terminate gender-specific programs in American schools. For the ACLU, organizing by sex is analogous to organizing by race. Lenora Lapidus, Director of the Women's Rights Project of the ACLU, seems baffled so few see the connection. “It is, in fact, quite startling,” says Lapidus, “that many people who would never consider segregation based on race or religion in a public school would accept sex segregation.” This campaign is unlikely to advance the cause of social justice.  But its potential for mischief is abundant.

No one is suggesting that any student be forced into a single-sex program. Coeducation is an American tradition, and that will never change. But some parents and students prefer girls' and boys' schools, so why deny them that choice? What could be wrong with a voluntary program that seems to be doing so much good? Plenty, says the ACLU, and it claims to have research to prove it: a 2011 critique of single-sex education published in the prestigious journal Science.

The Science article is a two-page summary of the state of the literature on single-sex education. That could be useful, except that it was written by eight professors who belong to an advocacy group that opposes single-sex education. The article attempts to persuade readers of two propositions: 1) There is no well-designed research that proves that single-sex education improves academic achievement, and 2) there is good evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and “legitimizes institutional sexism.”

On the first point, there are in fact many studies that demonstrate the value of single-sex education. A recent article in Demography showed that both men and women benefit significantly from the single-sex model. A 2008 German study found that young women in female-only physics classes developed more confidence and interest in the subject than their counterparts in coed classes. When a group of researchers at Stetson University compared single-sex and coed classes in a Florida elementary school, they documented large gains for both boys and girls in the single-sex classes—but especially boys. Over the four years of the study, 55 percent of boys in coed classes scored proficient on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, compared with 85 percent of boys in the all-boys classes.

As for the claim that gender-specific schools increase stereotyping and sexism, there is ample evidence to the contrary. After all, in such schools girls cannot leave it to boys to dissect the frog, and boys cannot leave it to girls to edit the school newspaper. In 2007, a large-scale, well-designed British study found that “Gender stereotypes are exacerbated” in co-ed schools and “moderated” in single-sex schools. Girls in the single sex-schools were more likely to focus their studies on math and science; boys were more likely to study language and literature. And there was also this attention-grabbing finding: “For girls … single-sex schooling was linked to higher wages.”

In a subsequent issue of Science, academic critics faulted the authors for failing to cite any serious research showing that single-sex schools foster sexism. The eight authors conceded the point in their reply: “We agree with [critics] that systematic reviews have yet to address the potential harm of single-sex schools in increasing stereotyping and sexism.” Yet, the ACLU appears to believe that this Science article provides that systematic review. In fact, the article is little more than a compendium of the authors' adamant opinions supported by cherry-picked findings.

What the eight Science authors should have said is that the research on single-sex education is a mix of contradictory findings. That is what the Department of Education found in a comprehensive 2005 review of the literature. The DOE deemed the literature to be “equivocal” and it advised that the matter might never be resolved by quantitative investigation because it involves issues “of philosophy and worldview.”​

Indeed, most of the research on classroom effects is similarly equivocal and unsettled. Look at the literature on longer vs. shorter school days, more homework vs. less, large vs. small classes—advocates on either side can find vindication in the research. Schools offer parents all sorts of reasonable choices that lack rigorous scientific support: gifted and talented programs, school orchestras, field trips. To say that such programs should be forbidden until all the research lines up in one direction would be a prescription for paralysis and mediocrity. How best to educate children is not an exact science. The serious and objective researchers on both sides of the single-sex schooling debate know this and warn against over-interpreting their findings.

But this debate is not really about findings or research. Even if there were decisive evidence that gender-specific education improved student performance, both the ACLU and the Science authors would still be opposed.  They have persuaded themselves that separating by sex is just as wrong as segregating by race. Diane Halpern, lead author of the Science article, like the ACLU’s Lenora Lapidus, insists on the connection: “Advocates for single-sex education don't like the parallel with racial segregation, but the parallels are there."

No, they are not. Race and sex are different, as the Supreme Court has emphasized and as most everyone recognizes. Mandatory racial separatism demeans human beings and forecloses life prospects. Single-sex education is freely chosen and has helped millions of pupils flourish intellectually and socially. It’s preposterous to think of Wellesley College, the Girl Scouts or the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy as oppressive institutions comparable to segregated schools in the Jim Crow South.

I recently took part in a debate with one of the eight authors of the Science article—Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at the Chicago Medical School. In the discussion, she said she hoped to see the day when the courts would require Wellesley to accept males. In a subsequent article she talked about how eerie it was to be debating single-sex education on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She suggested that if Dr. King were alive today he might say, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their X or Y chromosomes, but by the content of their character."

The ACLU is pursuing this “dream.” By threatening schools with costly investigations and lawsuits, it has already terminated single-sex programs in several states, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine and Alabama. The ACLU also played a central role in preventing Madison, Wisconsin, from creating schools like the Dallas Irma Rangel and Barack Obama Leadership Academies.

On its website and in countless brochures and reports, the ACLU mocks the idea that there could even be such a thing as girl or boy-friendly teaching methods. Principal Douglas’ system of organizing young men in his Dallas school into four competing houses may be effective—but for the ACLU it would count as constitutionally forbidden “educational programming based on stereotypes.” The ACLU is now demanding that the Department of Education issue guidelines to all schools “explaining that programs based on stereotypes are impermissible.”

Reacting to this reckless crusade, Senators Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, said in a joint 2012 editorial, “To take single-sex education away from students who stand to benefit is unforgivable.” Surely, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agrees. Instead of remaining passively on the sidelines, he and his department should be defending schools from the bullying efforts of the ACLU.

Can this campaign be stopped? Yes—just look at what happened last year in Rhode Island. In pursuit of its mission to overcome the gender distinction, the ACLU successfully pressured officials in Cranston, Rhode Island, to ban their much-loved traditional father-daughter dance and mother-son baseball game. “This type of gender stereotyping only perpetuates outdated notions of 'girl' and 'boy' activities,” the ACLU insisted, “and is contrary to federal law.” But Rhode Island rebelled! After a public outcry, a nearly united (mostly liberal) state legislature passed a bill sanctioning gender-specific events such as dances and baseball games. The ACLU is now calculating its next move. “I assume,” says one ACLU official, “the first school district that attempts to make use of the law will be facing a law suit.”

The one-time champions of civil liberties will no doubt make good on the threat if they have to, and will continue with their twisted campaign against single-sex education. Let’s hope for more rebellion.