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What Happens When You Teach Stereotypes Instead of Kids?

Amy L. Katz,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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August 15, 2012

Some school officials in West Virginia think boys and girls are so “hard-wired” to learn differently that they have implemented some major changes in their middle school: boys and girls are separated into different classrooms for all their academic classes and taught using radically different methods.

At Van Devender Middle School (or Vandy), a public school in Wood County WV, the boys’ classroom is brightly lit and cool, and the students are allowed to run around to blow off steam. They can sit in beanbag chairs if they wish and their desks are moveable and do not face each other. The girls’ classrooms are warm and dimly lit, and students are expected to remain in their seats and face each other while they work, even if they find that distracting.
 Girls are supposed to discuss their feelings about novels while boys are supposed to discuss the action in the books.

Adding insult to injury, this is their neighborhood middle school, to which they were assigned by the Board of Education.

The explanation for implementing this radical version of single-sex education there? On some state-standardized measures, Vandy students were performing less well than the rest of the county. Somehow, separating the students by sex for all of their academic core curriculum classes and teaching them differently was supposed to fix this problem. Even though all the other middle schools – the ones supposedly outperforming Vandy – were coed.

This separation was based on the work of Leonard Sax and the organization he founded and runs, the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education (NASSPE), which holds conferences and teacher trainings to promote the theory that boys’ and girls’ brains are so different that they should be placed in separate classrooms and taught using different methods. These theories have traction because they are simple to implement. We can identify a child’s sex and say “boys in this classroom,” “girls in this classroom.” Problem solved—right?

Wrong. There is no educational evidence that single-sex education is superior to a coeducational environment, and mounting evidence that sex separation can be detrimental to the academic performance of both sexes. While there are undoubtedly some well-funded single-sex schools that achieve high academic performance, their success is not due to their single-sex nature but to other factors such as inspiring principals, excellent teachers, smaller class sizes, large funding, and, perhaps above all, engaged parents who are involved in their children’s educations.

What’s more, Sax’s brain-difference theories have been extensively debunked in books such as Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain, and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender

Nonetheless, Vandy spent at least $7,000 to hire Sax to train their teachers for two days. And then they spent even more to send teachers to his national conference.

Pity the child who does not fit Sax’s stereotypes.

Today the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging this discriminatory program. We are representing a mother and her three daughters currently enrolled at Vandy. The three girls are suing the Wood County School Board because their 6th grade year was torturous for them.

• One girl has attention-deficit disorder and has trouble sitting still in class.. Her punishment? Being sent to the boys’ classroom, where she is required to sit still and face the wall while the boys roam freely around the room!
• Another girl is legally blind and has difficulty reading in the dimly lit classroom; she requested brighter lights and the teacher told her to sit by the window.
• And a third girl learns best by reading and writing things down; however, when she asked for more time to take notes and copy slide presentations, she was told that girls learn best through auditory rather than visual input.

These girls are being unfairly deprived of equal educational opportunities because they do not conform to gender-based stereotypes.

Through our lawsuit, we hope to halt this discriminatory program and bring public attention to the harms caused by sex stereotyping and unjustified separation. No child fits all the stereotypes about his or her sex, and teaching kids as if they did is simply wrong.

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