Single-sex education is coming your way--is it worth it?
Published March 29, 2004

The Bush administration and the US Department of Education are putting together some new and interesting amendments to the regulations that govern eduction in this country. Specifically, they are planning on making it easier for schools to set up classes for a single sex--girls or boys, that is--and for single-sex charter schools to be established. The purpose of these changes is to accommodate alternate teaching ideas and to expand the range of choices open to students, parents, and administrators. But is this progress, or regression?

The new regulations would allow single-sex classes for two reasons: to provide a diversity of educational options for parents and students; and to meet particular, identifiable educational needs. In both cases, participation would be voluntary, and here's where the school would also have to provide a coed class that was "substantially equal" to the new, single-sex class. In some cases, the school would also have to provide another single-sex class for the excluded gender. Either way, all these classes would have to be equal in substance, if not exactly in form.

How would the government judge equality? They would do so based on several standards, falling under various categories, like admission policies and criteria; educational benefits, and the quality of books, materials and technology available, among several others. Almost all of this, by the way, comes directly from the government's paper on the topic, which you can find on the Department of Education's website.

Judging and enforcing these standards would be mostly up to the schools themselves, though obviously complaints would bring the government into play.

It's worth noting that same-sex classes are already allowed in certain circumstances where common sense dictate that they should be. For instance, some physical education classes can be split if they involve contact sports, like wrestling or football. Sex ed classes are also free to be divided by gender, as are choirs that are aiming for a particular vocal sound that either women or men possess. Do we need any other gender divisions?

These changes may end up being detrimental not just to girls but to boys as well. So much of our society centers around artificially-imposed differences between the sexes that it's surprising to hear how similar women and men really are, in so many substantive ways. There is no gender-based color preference, or preference for tear-jerking films, nor a predetermination for male sports fans and car builders. These are largely social constructs that are forced upon us from a young age by media and the people around us. Boys who don't like sports are wimps, girls who like cars are odd or butch; these are cultural stereotypes so firmly rooted in our society that they may never disappear.

Segregating the genders in school will lead to even more of these socialized differences. Why's that a problem? In the real world, there is no (or very few) single-sex workplace, single-sex restaurants, single-sex whatever. School is as much about social education as it is about math and reading. Segregating boys and girls into single-sex classrooms and even schools is not going to help them integrate into society; it may even leave them at a disadvantage compared to those going to coed schools.

Though there is definitive proof that boys and girls learn differently, that is not a matter of learning environment, as studies involving gender-separated classes have shown so far. Those studies are not yet conclusive, but that very uncertainty argues for more time to examine the issue. The government paper acknowledges this uncertainty when it admits there is no proof of educational benefits from single-sex learning environments. It would be more appropriate to spend our limited resources educating our educators, working with teachers on ways to approach different learning styles in one room.

The issue of money, to me, seems the last straw. The government's own feasibility study claims that the changes to the law do not require any additional money, because they make no demands of schools; they only allow extra options. But it seems clear that these changes will open the door for parents to demand change of their schools--not necessarily a bad thing, but how can we afford these changes?

The reason our classrooms became co-educational, as well as desegregated, was a recognition that the concept of "separate but equal" was flawed. I do not think that the government is trying to discriminate against girls or boys by going ahead with these changes to education law involving single-sex classrooms, but I do think that discrimination could result, both from deliberate cheating of the system on behalf of local schools and districts, and by inadvertent shortchanging of one group or another.

All of this moves forward without any clear rationale, without any scientific evidence of benefits for the alternate approach; we're doing it because we can, and because of some myth that choice is the most important part of education. Neither is a good reason to mess with a system that has done a lot of good for girls and boys both in the last thirty years. I would encourage anyone who agrees with me to contact their Congressional representatives and tell them this process needs to slow down until research yields definitive results, one way or another. Otherwise we may end up creating a new problem to fix something that wasn't even broken.