Single-sex education must be voluntary
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Build it and they will come." That is what one Pittsburgh school board member said at a recent meeting about the school district's plan to turn Westinghouse High School, one of the city's lowest performing, into two single-sex academies for grades 6 through 12.
But the students did not come. In fact, so few students chose to attend the single-sex academies, which were open to students in the entire district, that it resulted in over-enrollment at the coeducational alternative school, Milliones 6-12, putting that school over capacity by nearly 20 percent.
The school board's solution? Create a "coed" school for grades 6 through 12 at Westinghouse but offer only single-sex classes, with the exception of arts electives, physical education and vocational classes. Students in Westinghouse's geographic area would be assigned to the school but could opt out of single-sex classes during the first 30 days of the school year.
This plan ignores the choices that more than 200 students and their families in the Westinghouse feeder pattern made to attend Milliones, a coeducational school. It also amounts to a weak effort to evade federal law -- specifically, 2006 regulations implementing Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education -- which prohibits school districts from assigning students to single-sex schools or classes. These Bush-era regulations made it easier for school districts to offer single-sex classes but still required that student participation be voluntary.
Compelling students to "try" single-sex classes before being allowed to enroll in coed classes is coercive, especially if students who wish to exercise their right to coed instruction are required to switch schools after the school year has already begun. From a practical standpoint, it will be difficult for students to opt out of single-sex classes. Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane practically admitted as much when she explained to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Our goal is to make them so happy there, they'll want to stay."
Why is the school district essentially forcing families to enroll their children in single-sex classes? It can't be because single-sex instruction improves student performance: An extensive review of single-sex versus coed schooling by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005 concluded that the results were "equivocal" -- in other words, there is no clear evidence that students are more likely to succeed in single-sex schools.
Some studies have found that single-sex schools perpetuate sex stereotypes, and many of their proponents promote instructional methods that are based on questionable science about how girls' and boys' brains develop, which translates into different treatment of boys and girls in the classroom.
For example, advocates of sex-segregated schools tell teachers that boys need a competitive and confrontational learning environment, while girls can succeed only if they work cooperatively and are not placed under stress or given time limits on tests, and that boys are better than girls in math because boys' bodies receive daily surges of testosterone, whereas girls don't understand mathematical theory well except for a few days a month when their estrogen surges.
Records provided in response to requests made by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania under the Pennsylvania Right to Know law suggest that the Pittsburgh school district has bought into these stereotypes hook, line and sinker. Draft documents state, without citation, that "research shows that adolescent girls' brains exhibit high levels of communication between different subject matter, cultures and time periods, while young men make meaning through movement." Documents make clear that the program is intended to enable teachers to "appeal" to these supposedly different gendered learning styles.
Although these ideas are hyped as "new discoveries" about brain differences, they are, in fact, dressed-up versions of old stereotypes. Creating sex-segregated schools and classrooms is a waste of time and effort that diverts resources from initiatives that actually improve the education of both boys and girls -- such as reducing class sizes and increasing teacher training. Moreover, sex-segregated classes deprive students of important preparation for the real, coeducational worlds of work and family.
The ACLU opposes sex-segregation in public education because it is unconstitutional, because it perpetuates antiquated gender stereotypes and because it deprives both girls and boys of the benefits of coeducation.
The Pittsburgh school district, however, is plowing ahead with its plan to force students into single-sex classes regardless of student or family wishes and without evidence that single-sex education improves the performance of students who attend public schools.
Many Pittsburgh public schools have been failing the city's kids, and new solutions are desperately needed at Westinghouse. But instead of turning to sex segregation as a "quick fix," the school district needs to concentrate on reforms supported by evidence that will make a real difference in kids' lives. Actually listening to the more than 200 students and their families who have already made a choice to enroll in a coeducational school would be a good start.
First Published May 27, 2011 12:00 am