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Back to School Minus the Sex Stereotypes

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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September 10, 2013

Labor Day has come and gone, and the kids have gone back to school. And, fortunately, thanks, in part, to the Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes campaign, more students will be in classrooms where their teachers will get to know their individual learning styles rather than making assumptions about how they learn and what they’re interested in based solely on their sex.

If you’re scratching your head and saying, but wait, it’s 2013; I thought teachers *do* focus on individual needs, I don’t blame you. But it turns out that even today, there’s a movement across the country aiming to separate students by sex, based on faulty theories about supposed “hard-wired” differences between boys’ and girls’ brains and development. Proponents of these programs espouse the beliefs that boys and girls learn and develop so differently that they should be educated separately using radically different teaching techniques – that they cannot learn around one another and have nothing to learn from one another.

Fortunately, more and more educators and education policymakers are realizing that their students don’t fit neatly into little pink-and-blue/girls-and-boys boxes. In Birmingham, Ala., La Crosse, Wis., and Wood County, W. Va., schools have agreed (after the ACLU intervened) to end unlawful single-sex programs that were based on and promoted gender stereotypes. In Boston, Mass. and Durham, N.C. (where a well-resourced boys’ school was proposed with no similar opportunity available to girls), proposals to start new single-sex programs were defeated. And, the Maine state legislature rejected a ridiculous bill that could have been read as encouraging schools to institute single-sex classes in violation of Title IX and the Constitution.

But, of course, it’s never all good news, is it? Grand Rapids, Mich. is set to begin a new single-sex program, and Beloit, Wis. has opted to continue its single-sex program, despite an active investigation by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Similarly, Valley Charter in Modesto, Calif. persists in separating freshman and sophomore advisory classes by sex, in the face of impressive protests by the school’s students. And, Austin, Tex. is on track to implement a new single-sex program in 2014, despite widespread community criticism, including the suggestion that the proposal essentially experiments on poor kids and kids of color, bringing possibly harmful techniques to their classrooms that simply wouldn’t fly in the more affluent and enfranchised part of town. Meanwhile, Rhode Island, in a bid to return to the 1950s, enacted legislation, directly in conflict with Title IX, that authorizes public schools to provide sex-separated extracurricular activities of any kind. Think boys go to wood shop and baseball games and girls go to home ec and the ballet. Hold on while I find my poodle skirt.

These school districts are behind the curve, though. Simply put, the legal footing is slipping out from under both the programs and their proponents. In the ACLU case that ended the West Virginia program mentioned above, a federal judge observed “the court does note that the science behind single-sex education appears to be, at best inconclusive, and certain gender-based teaching techniques based on stereotypes and lacking any scientific basis may very well be harmful to students. Even Professor [Rosemary] Salomone, the expert witness called by the defense, agreed with the ACLU on the issue of brain research – that it’s based on the rationale of pseudoscience – and suggested that many schools were ‘led astray’ by the teachings of [single-sex proponent] Dr. Leonard Sax.”

And don’t just take it from the court. When OCR began to investigate Birmingham’s single-sex program, “The District . . . informed OCR that the District was not interested in attempting to continue the single sex classes in a manner that would comply with the Title IX requirements.” What they mean is, “The District realized that its program was blatantly illegal and that it would be impossible to bring it into compliance with Title IX.” Watch out, Beloit, Wis.

In all seriousness these programs are illegal, and even if they weren’t illegal are they really what we want for our kids? Schools separating students by sex and designing curriculum around gender stereotypes convey the message – intentionally or not – that there are particular ways “normal” boys or girls ought to think or behave. As Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men and Manhood in America and SUNY Stony Brook professor, puts it, single-sex classrooms can “flatten the differences among boys, which will crush those boys who do not conform to that stereotype: the artistic ones, the musical ones, the soft-spoken ones, the ones who aren’t into sports.” And, the same is true for girls. Relatedly, Chicago Medical School – Rosalind Franklin University neuroscience Professor Lise Eliot has found that “[w]hether we divide groups by race, religion, age, or — yes — gender, segregation inevitably promotes stereotyping and prejudice. And children, who learn which attributes society values from the way adults divide groups of people, are especially vulnerable to this kind of prejudice.” These understandings of the harms of this single-sex approach are catching on. Just check out the impressive constellation of women’s rights groups and LGBT groups that came out against the Rhode Island legislation, as well as the League of United Latin American Citizens’ statement in Austin.

We want a world where students are treated as individuals, rather than stereotypes, where a girl’s passion for robotics will be just as celebrated as her sister’s passion for fashion-design and where a boy who likes to read is just as respected as the boy who prefers football. We’ve been steadily moving toward that world since the latter part of the 20th century. In recent years, a few individuals have been trying to pull us backwards, and we’re glad that the 2013-2014 school year will see a few more schools getting back on track. We’ll keep working to make sure even more return to the fold. If your school is separating kids by sex based on stereotypes, tell us about it here.

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