Today, the ACLU Women’s Rights Project issued a preliminary report to the federal Department of Education, detailing the preliminary findings of our Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes campaign. After studying documents from single-sex classes in public schools in 11 states, the report explains that a significant percentage of these schools overwhelmingly base their programs on discredited science rooted in sex stereotypes, and don’t offer parents any reasonable alternative, in violation of the Constitution and Title IX.
The stereotypes in some of these programs were shocking. For instance, one community in Pennsylvania described wanting to give students “male-hood and female-hood defined space” exhibiting the characteristics of “warrior, protector, and provider” for boys, and giving girls “space/time to explore things that young women like [including] writing, applying and doing make-up & hair, art.” Several schools changed their disciplinary rules to allow boys (but not girls) to move around their classrooms, and furnished the boys’ classrooms (but not the girls’) with bean-bag chairs and bouncy balls because one consultant says “boys need to move more than girls.”
These stereotypes have consequences. Last week, the ACLU and ACLU of West Virginia filed a lawsuit against one such school on behalf of a young woman who has been diagnosed with ADHD. She tends to move around a lot, and consistently gets sent to the boys’ classroom as punishment, where she is told to turn her desk to the wall and not participate while the boys go on moving and learning around her. After a year in these sex-stereotyped classes, her grades dropped. Not only is this young woman being deprived of her education, and deprived of a teaching style that might help her, because of her sex, but also, every day she is made to feel that she is an abnormal girl because she doesn’t fit some stereotype of how a girl should learn or behave. This isn’t how education should work.
The mindset of sex-stereotyped instruction can be even more pernicious than that. A recent article about Wake County, North Carolina describes Ian Solomon, the principal of a new young men’s academy there, as saying that his school can “adjust the material to better interest male and female students. For instance, while female students might read The Diary of Anne Frank, Solomon said the male students might read a similar book written from a male perspective.” Does someone really need to explain to this principal why very few diaries survive that were written by Jewish teenagers, male or female, while in hiding from the Nazis? Does he really think this story doesn’t contain enough war, persecution, suspense, or courage to interest boys or girls? And does he really have such a low opinion of boys that he thinks they’re impervious to Anne Frank’s messages of tolerance and hope (and, yes, civil liberties) since they weren’t delivered by a boy or a man?
There is no evidence that sex-stereotyped instruction improves educational outcomes for boys or girls, at any age or in any subject matter. But even aside from the waste of valuable money and effort involved in splitting boys and girls into different classrooms with different rules and topics, these programs come at too high a cost.
One of the strengths of our public schools is the opportunity they provide for students of different sexes, races, religions, and political, cultural, and economic backgrounds to learn from each other. It’s useful in the neighborhood, it’s useful in the workplace, it’s useful in democracy, and it’s useful in the classroom.
Anne Frank said, “I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.” We’re asking the Department of Education to rescind the 2006 regulations that have been widely misinterpreted as permitting sex-stereotyped single-sex classes like these, or at least to provide guidance to these schools that programs based on stereotypes are illegal. The Constitution enshrines some of our ideals. We hope the Department of Education will carry them out.