Blog of Rights

Teach Kids Not Stereotypes

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU at 10:23am

Today, we are sending demand letters to school districts in Florida, Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama insisting that they take steps to end single-sex programs that rely on and promote archaic and harmful sex stereotypes, and we’re launching a new campaign called Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes to drive the point home. 

As Ani DiFranco sings, “women learn to be women, and men learn to be men,” and some schools across the country are helping that process along. Take the James, Mort, and Woodbridge Elementary Schools in Florida and the Anne Baily Elementary School in West Virginia, which begin separating kids by sex in kindergarten. Kindergarten! That’s right around the time that kids are solidifying their notions of self-identity and developing “an impressive constellation of stereotypes about gender (often amusing and incorrect) that they apply to themselves and others.” And single-sex classrooms? They’re helping those stereotypes along.

Social scientists have found that separating students by sex simply makes the contrast between the sexes more salient. And, when you look at what the proponents of single-sex classrooms are preaching, it’s easy to see the world segregated classrooms can create.   Take Dr. Leonard Sax, who suggests that a boy who likes to read, does not enjoy contact sports, and does not have a lot of close male friends has a problem, even if he thinks he is happy, and that such a boy should be firmly disciplined, required to spend time with “normal males,” and made to play sports. Yikes! 

And if you’re wondering if schools are taking Sax’ advice, just listen to Steve Taylor, the principal of Van Devender Middle School in West Virginia, explain his school’s single-sex program:

We know that boys . . . have a much shorter attention span than girls have, so . . . we have set the boys classrooms up so they can get up and move around and lay on the floor if they want, whatever . . . while girls are much more organized . . . They sit at table-round tables, facing each other . . . sharing things . . . doing that sort of thing . . . We know that boys like brighter lights, so we have the boys rooms lit a little differently than we do the girls rooms . . . [B]oys, we sit them side-by-side, because when they look each other in the eye it becomes more of a confrontational type thing . . .

Whether you’re a girl who hates sitting still and likes bright lights, or a boy who works best collaboratively or enjoys reading, watch out. These single-sex programs have no space for you.

And what are the results of divided education? Well, those social scientists I cited earlier found that “there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.” That’s not what I signed up for when I went to public school, and I don’t think that’s what most parents are signing their kids up for. 

Incidentally, if you’re wondering what the law says, it turns out that generalizations about the ways boys and girls “typically learn” are not permissible reasons to start a single-sex program. 

We at the ACLU can’t sit on our hands while public schools teach boys to be active and aggressive – by shouting at them, spanking them, and allowing them to toss a football in class – while they simultaneously coddle girls, using soft voices, encouraging them to talk about their feelings, and giving them untimed tests to create a less stressful environment. In addition to the demand letters we’re sending today, in the past month, we’ve filed public records requests with schools in Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, Massachusetts, Indiana, Idaho, and Illinois so that we can better understand the scope and parameters of the single-sex programs operating in those states.

Is your school separating students by sex? If so, let us know here, because all of our kids deserve to reach their full potential, regardless of their sex. And, that starts with a high quality, fair education that treats all students as individuals, not as stereotypes.

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