ACLU Seeks Investigation of Single-Sex Programs Rooted In Stereotypes at Two Wisconsin School Districts

March 28, 2013 1:17 pm

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CHICAGO – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Wisconsin today asked the federal Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education to investigate single-sex programs in the Barron Area and Beloit School Districts in Wisconsin.

The ACLU’s complaints, which followed an analysis of documents received through open records laws, contends that the programs appear to violate federal and state law by forcing students into a single-sex environment, relying on harmful gender stereotypes and depriving students of equal educational opportunities merely because of their sex.

Programs in both districts trained teachers that boys should be allowed to move around the classroom during instruction, while girls should sit quietly; that they should tailor instructional materials and assignments toward stereotypical “boys’ interests” like sports and “girls’ interests” like sharing feelings and, in the Barron Area example, discussing topics like cats, shopping and horses; and emphasized that they should speak to boys in a clear and assertive manner while smiling and speaking softly to girls.

“We all want children in Wisconsin to have a quality education, but tracking them into programs that promote stereotypes doesn’t help anyone,” said Karyn Rotker, of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Whatever the intentions of the educators who set up these programs, the disproven theories on which they rely actually limit opportunities for boys and girls alike.”

The complaints were filed against Riverview Middle School in Barron; and Robinson and McLenegan Elementary Schools in Beloit. Beloit School District has offered single-sex programs in two elementary schools in multiple subjects and in non-academic areas such as lunch and recess, since 2007. The Barron Area School District separated its fifth grade math and language arts classes by sex in 2011, and although it temporarily discontinued the program this year due to scheduling issues, the district has refused to respond to inquiries as to whether it will be halted permanently.

The programs in both districts were heavily influenced by the ideas of Dr. Leonard Sax, whose theories on the supposed differences between boys’ and girls’ brains are rooted in archaic stereotypes. For example, Dr. Sax has said that girls do badly under stress, so they should not be given time limits on a test; and that boys who like to read, do not enjoy contact sports and do not have a lot of close male friends should be firmly disciplined, required to spend time with “normal males” and made to play sports.

The school districts cited Sax’s discredited theory of differences between boys’ and girls’ brains as its justification for single-sex education. These theories were recently debunked in an article authored by a multidisciplinary team of scientists in the prestigious journal Science, which argued that sex segregation does not improve academic performance, but does foster stereotypes.

“There is no solid evidence supporting the assertions about supposed differences between boys’ and girls’ brains on which these programs are based, and there is absolutely no evidence that teaching boys and girls differently leads to any educational improvements,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “It’s harmful for public schools to promote these types of generalizations about boys and girls—particularly with children who are so young.”

The ACLU’s letter demands that the OCR investigate and enforce federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex in schools and ensure that these programs are not implemented again.

As part of the ACLU’s national “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign, requests for public records were also sent this week to school districts in New Jersey, Texas, and California. A state administrative complaint was filed against a special education program in New Jersey.

For more information and to view the letter, please visit:

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