This week, the Pittsburgh Public School District agreed to drop sex-segregated classes at Westinghouse, a grades 6-12 public school, after the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Women’s Law Project, and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project threatened to file a complaint with the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
Why would the ACLU be threatening to take legal action against this newly reformed and previously failing school? The answer is simpler than it seems: the school was based on an educational model that promotes harmful sex stereotypes.
Administrators explicitly planned that the school be entirely sex segregated in order to cater to the supposedly “separate needs of young women and young men,” claiming — completely incorrectly — that “research solidly indicates that boys and girls learn differently,” and aiming to provide students with “male-hood and female-hood defined space.” In case you are wondering what that might mean, school planners apparently believed it included emphasizing “characteristics of warrior, protector, and provider” for boys, and providing “space/time to explore things that young women like [including] writing, applying and doing make-up & hair, art.” We are not making this up: these quotes are from documents received in response to a records request by the ACLU of PA.
The School Superintendent acknowledged at a public meeting on Monday that gender stereotypes used in teacher trainings factored into the decision to drop the program. Indeed, planned teacher training materials included the book Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax, the head of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education — a seminal text in new sex segregation movement that is permeated with broad stereotypes about the different talents and capacities of boys and girls.
Pittsburgh joins several other school districts that have recently abandoned single-sex education. The Vermillion Parish School Board also just settled an ACLU lawsuit challenging single-sex classes in a Louisiana middle school. More recently, as a result of successful advocacy by the ACLU of Wisconsin, backers of a proposed charter school in Madison have agreed to drop their initial plan to start the charter school only for boys and agreed to include girls; however, the proposal still calls for the school to be entirely sex-segregated. The ACLU is calling for the Board to condition its approval on the school being made entirely coed, pointing out that sex segregation will not fix the racial achievement gap.
The ACLU recognizes the critical need for better educational options — particularly for students of color. But we can’t accept sex stereotypes as part of the bargain. The Pittsburgh School District’s abandonment of this program should send a message that separating kids by sex will not turn a failing school around. Co-education is not the problem with our education system, and sex segregation is not the solution.