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ACLU Lens: Sex-Segregated Education Will Not Cure Our Ailing Schools

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October 18, 2011

Galen Sherwin of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project was recently featured in the New York Times’ Online Room for Debate discussing the drawbacks to sex-segregated education in public schools. Galen’s essay was one of seven featured in the debate, which included educators and legal experts from both sides of the issue.

Single-sex classes have been proliferating since federal regulations limiting such programs were relaxed a few years ago. Many educators — desperate to solve the very real education crisis facing our public schools, particularly for low-income and minority communities — have turned to single-sex programs as a sort of a magic bullet.

However, most programs are based on invidious sex-role stereotypes and discredited theories about purported differences between the ways boys and girls learn. As Galen points out, influential proponents of single-sex instruction claim girls respond poorly to stressful situations, and shouldn’t be timed during exams, and that boys should be allowed to relieve tension by hitting things with a Nerf bat during class. Yet, emerging evidence shows these programs fail to improve academic results, raising serious questions about whether they do more harm than good. They fail to account for the fact that all children learn differently, regardless of sex.

Galen states that segregating by sex is often a mere gimmick that gives administrators a splashy way to show they’re doing something — even if it fails to produce results. Real education reform should rely on proven methods, like smaller class sizes, more parental involvement, measures to promote excellence in teaching, and greater attention to curriculum.

Recently, the ACLU won a significant victory in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, in which a school district agreed to halt a sex-segregated program that was found to be based on faulty science, and failed to gain enough support from parents and students to continue. Other schools looking for a quick fix should take note. “Coeducation is not the problem with our schools,” Galen said in her piece, “and sex segregation is not the cure.”

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