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Keeping Gender Stereotypes Out of Classrooms

Galen Sherwin,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Women’s Rights Project
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October 6, 2010

Increasingly, school districts throughout the country are instituting single-sex classes in coeducational public schools based on faulty and outdated stereotypes. Many of these programs are rooted in the theories of single-sex education proponents Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian, who assert that girls and boys brains are so different they need to be taught separately. Their faulty ideas include the theory that girls should not be given time limits on tests because they can't handle the stress, and boys are better at math due to daily surges of testosterone. The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, a group that advocates for sex segregation, asserts that there are now more than 500 public schools in the country that have single-sex programs, up from only 11 in 2002.

Yesterday, the ACLU asked a federal court of appeals in Louisiana to end a sex-segregation policy in a Vermilion Parish public middle school because it was based on these same discredited theories about how boys and girls learn. Our claim was that the program discriminates by separating girls and boys into separate classes and denies students the right to a public education free from gender stereotypes.

Here's how this played out in Louisiana: Two weeks before school opened in the fall of 2009, the district informed families at Rene A. Rost Middle School in Vermilion Parish that classes would be segregated by sex. When a mother, represented by the ACLU, objected, the district agreed to offer a parallel track of coeducational classes and to make participating in the single-sex program voluntary.

On the first day of school, however, the mother discovered that her daughters had been placed in single-sex classes against her wishes. What's more, all the "gifted and talented" students had been assigned to the single-sex classes, while the special needs students had been assigned to the coed classes.

It later became clear that the school principal had not only disregarded parents' wishes for whether their children should be enrolled in the single-sex classes, but he had also misrepresented to the school district that students' grades and discipline had improved during a pilot study of sex segregated classes. In reality, they hadn't. When the ACLU challenged the program in court, the school district defended its decision to employ different teaching methods for boys and girls—different methods based on sex stereotypes.

The legal basis for our claims is simple: the program illegally discriminates against both boys and girls in violation of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, including sex stereotypes, in schools that accept public funds. It also violates the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection, which prohibits the use of stereotypes about boys' and girls' learning styles and requires the existence of an extremely persuasive justification for separating boys and girls in public schools.

Unfortunately, the district court sided with the school district. We appealed that decision in June—yesterday's hearing addressed that appeal. Whatever you may think about teaching girls and boys separately, we should all be concerned about the proliferation of broad, outdated stereotypes in education that limit options for boys and girls alike. Schools play an important role in shaping how young people view themselves and others. They can be places of great opportunity or sow the seeds of future inequality.

What's more, there is no proof that separating girls from boys results in better-educated kids or helps to turn a struggling educational system around. While there is no doubt that we need to find new strategies that can help improve academic achievement, we cannot let gender stereotypes continue to take root in our children's classrooms — the cost is simply too high. Hopefully, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will agree.

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