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Sometimes It Only Takes An Hour to Get the Picture: This Single-Sex Program Won't Fly

Amy L. Katz,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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January 15, 2015

Sometimes all it takes is a letter and an hour to do the right thing.

After the ACLU learned late last week about a plan to assign ninth-grade students at Lawrence Free State High School in Kansas to different classrooms based on their sex, we emailed a letter to the school district’s superintendent on Monday explaining our concerns about what seemed to be obviously unlawful sex separation. According to a report in the school paper, the principal initiated this program – without notifying parents – because he believed that girls and boys have different learning needs and different reading preferences. Within an hour of receiving our letter, the superintendent shut down the program.

So what changed? School administrators are getting the memo.

Last month, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a guidance document we have long-requested clarifying the meaning of its regulations that allow schools to establish single-sex classrooms in limited circumstances. Some of the requirements in the guidance document specifically applicable to Lawrence are:

  • Participation in any single-sex class must be completely voluntary, and unpressured, prior affirmative consent to participation is necessary.
  • A substantially equal coeducational class must be offered. If even one student chooses a coeducational class, a full coeducational class must be established. There is a right to a coeducational class, but no right to a single-sex class.
  • Even if all participants consent, any single-sex class must be justified based on high quality evidence. The justification must have been established prior to offering the single-sex class and not after the fact. And perhaps most importantly, it may not rely on overbroad generalizations about the talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females.

That last requirement is a tough one to satisfy. A meta-analysis of more than 1.6 million students’ performance published in 2014 by the American Psychological Association showed that, when proper controls are used, there are no benefits to single-sex education.

And the Supreme Court has held that generalizations about a “typical” woman (or man) are not constitutionally adequate to justify a sex-segregated program. That’s because programs based on such generalizations, like the one in Lawrence, violate students’ rights to be treated as individuals and not pre-judged based on their sex.

The assumptions that fuel such programs, however, are far too common. Proponents of single-sex education have argued that boys and girls brains are wired differently, and that they consequently need to be taught in radically different ways—or even given different curricula.

For example, in one school district in Louisiana, the boys were assigned “Where the Red Fern Grows” and the girls were assigned “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” because, as a teacher explained to the ACLU in a deposition, boys like hunting and dogs and girls like love stories. (So much for the girl who, like me, prefers science fiction and history to love stories.)

Often, as in Louisiana and Lawrence, these programs are established without parents’ consent. But persuading school administrators that creating a single-sex class requires the clearing of numerous difficult hurdles has in the past been difficult, and it all too often required litigation or the filing of complaints with the OCR.

Thankfully, the Department of Education’s new guidance has made it much easier for schools to understand what is – and what is not – permitted. In Lawrence, this means that the students in English 9 can go back to discussing literature in a coeducational environment, rather than one in which the perspectives of 50 percent of the population are intentionally omitted. The girl who prefers science-fiction – or, for that matter, the boy who enjoys reading about characters’ relationships – will no longer have their educational needs ignored because of stereotyped assumptions about their interests or preferences.

While it would have been better if the Lawrence Free State High School administration had figured this out before the sex separation was put in place, they were a quick study once we pointed out the problems—A+.

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