Rights and wrongs in the debate over single-sex schooling

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Rosemary Salomone1


In September 2011, an article entitled “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” appeared in the journal Science.2 Unlike articles typically published in peer-reviewed journals, the primary intent in this case was not to inform the scholarly community but rather to accomplish larger political and legal ends. Co-authored by eight prominent psychologists and neuroscientists, it immediately made the front pages of national newspapers and soon took the international media by storm. From the United Kingdom, to Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa, it gave rise to a global forum for debating the pros and cons of single-sex schooling.3

As directly intended, the article has since given “scientific” legitimacy to a broad scale attack spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with ongoing support from an organization formed by the article’s authors to promote coeducation. The “immediate” targets of that attack are certain coeducational public schools that now offer separate classes for girls and boys in core subjects.4 The ACLU maintains that these programs are following practices grounded in disputed theories claiming hard-wired differences between the sexes. The “ultimate” target is the very concept of single-sex schooling, and the federal regulatory amendments that have permitted the approach to gain hold.

In a series of court challenges and cease-and-desist letters sent to school districts, the ACLU has charged that not only do specific policies and classroom practices violate Title IX5 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,6 but that the revised Title IX regulations issued by the federal Department of Education in 20067 are themselves unsound as a matter of law and policy. Most significantly, those revisions expressly afford school districts flexibility in creating separate classes in coed schools. Tangled up in the ACLU’s claims and the consequent litigation are two landmark decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education,8 the 1954 case striking down racially segregated public schools, and United States v. Virginia,9 the 1996 ruling declaring unconstitutional the exclusion of women from the state-supported Virginia Military Institute. The arguments advanced in the Science article and ACLU documents and press releases are now shaping the debate on single-sex schooling across the globe, with serious implications for education policy in the United States.

This essay uses the legal challenges, together with the Science article, as a framework for examining the forces that initially provoked and ultimately derailed the recent revival of single-sex programs, the rights and wrongs that animate the controversy over the merits of the approach, and the measures needed to set it back on a track that moves beyond opposing ideologies while meeting both Title IX and constitutional requirements. In the process, it examines a sample of studies commonly invoked by opponents, as well as other findings refuting those arguments, and weighs the cultural, political, and economic factors that may affect outcomes among different student populations in the United States and elsewhere. Overall, it presents a nuanced argument that denounces hard-wired biological justifications for separating students by sex while presenting social rationales and empirical evidence supporting the benefits that some students gain from evenhandedly designed programs that comply with the law. In the end, it underscores the many complexities underlying claims to “the end of men” and “the rise of women.”

Looking Back
Single-sex schooling evokes passionate responses among individuals and groups. All claim to promote the best interests of students, both girls and boys. To fully comprehend the depths of those feelings, the rancor the controversy has generated, and the complex legal and policy questions raised, it is helpful to look back over the past 40 years in the struggle to achieve equal educational opportunity and gender equity.

A Dubious History

In the United States, coeducation historically has been the norm among public schools particularly in the elementary grades. The initial rationale for coeducation was pragmatic rather than based in any grand pedagogical or psychological theories of social arrangement. It was simply cost-effective to educate students together. The approach gradually gained ground on the secondary level where by 1900, 98 percent of the public high schools nationwide were coeducational. At that time, only 12 out of 628 cities reported operating any single-sex schools.10 Girls far outnumbered and outperformed boys, leading educators to fret over the vexing “boy problem” most evident among the working class.

Until the 1970s, with rare exceptions, the few single-sex public schools that existed were primarily in large cities. These were either academically selective schools, like Boston Latin for boys and the Philadelphia High School for Girls, or vocational schools, like New York’s Girls’ Commercial and Aviation High Schools. The latter group, established in the early 1900s, largely served the children of immigrants, blacks, Mexican Americans, and others considered intellectually unsuited to academic pursuits. They offered a highly gendered curriculum, tracking male students into fields like drafting, woodworking, and auto mechanics and females into lower-paying careers like dressmaking and secretarial work. At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, the early private colleges and universities also remained segregated by sex. The most elite among them, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, admitted only men. Regardless of sector or level, with few exceptions, the education offered to females in separate schools was not as academically rigorous or as well funded as the education offered to males.11

The modern-day women’s movement, taking its cue from civil rights activists, fought to turn these inequities around. In the 1970s world of “liberal feminism,” typified in the work of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, women were considered “the same as,” and therefore “equal to,” men on all academic and professional measures. A key figure in developing that position was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who later spoke for a majority of the Supreme Court justices in United States v. Virginia. Within that frame of thought, single-sex education was viewed as inherently unequal and so the demand dramatically dropped. Some private single-sex schools and colleges opened their doors to members of the other sex. Other schools merged. A small number, many in the more traditional south, held on resolutely to the single-sex ideal.

In the public sector, separate schools either shut down or admitted both sexes under the prevailing interpretation of Title IX,12 the federal law adopted in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs or activities that receive federal funds. School districts that failed to comply ran the risk of losing federal education monies primarily aimed at addressing the needs of children living in high poverty areas.13 Not surprisingly, by the early 1980s single-sex schooling was widely considered to be anachronistic at best and highly discriminatory at worst. American feminists in particular pushed for greater equality within coeducation, in stark contrast to radical feminists in Great Britain who renounced coeducation as an instrument for reproducing male patriarchy and dominance.14

Events in Philadelphia and later Detroit placed a legal imprimatur on the American view. Though in the case of Philadelphia, an equally divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling upholding the highly resourced all boys’ Central High School,15 a state court later struck it down. Basing its decision on both state and federal constitutions, the court found that Central and its female counterpart Girls’ High were “materially unequal” in a concrete and measureable way and ordered that Central admit females.16 Girls’ High remained single-sex.

The Detroit case centered on a 1991 Board of Education resolution to open three all-male academies designed to combat high homicide, unemployment, and dropout rates among African-American males.17 The proposal unleashed a local firestorm over race and gender that reverberated nationwide. On one side stood attorneys for the ACLU, NOW, and the NAACP and its Legal Defense and Educational Fund. On the other side stood local school officials, the Detroit Urban League, and the Detroit NAACP chapter whose executive director best captured the thinking behind the proposal. As he explained to the press, all-male schools were “a level of redress and response to discrimination.”18

A federal district court judge granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction against the schools’ opening. From the judge’s view, there was no evidence that the system was failing males because of the presence of females; in fact, it was failing both sexes.19 The school district decided not to pursue a decision on the merits and agreed to admit girls. The troubling data on race and gender gathered by both sides, in fact, underscored how public schooling was not closing the racial achievement gap for either sex. And so despite the immediate outcome, the lawsuit set the wheels in motion for a new vision of separate schooling that initially would inspire programs for inner-city minority girls where a base of scholarly and political support was beginning to emerge.

At the same time as separate schools were disappearing from the education landscape, the notion of gender equality as “same treatment” came under attack within the feminist community itself. Critics argued that liberal feminism could not account for real differences between the sexes and the particular life experiences that gave women and men different moral and psychological perspectives. Carol Gilligan’s 1984 groundbreaking book, In a Different Voice,20 energized the sameness-difference debate. Best known for laying the theoretical base for her later research on adolescent girls, the book unintentionally gave credence to arguments supporting same-sex schooling for girls. In the 1990s, several other publications reaffirmed the idea that American schools, overwhelmingly coed, were “shortchanging” girls. Girls lost their self-esteem, we were told, as they approached adolescence. Boys dominated classroom discussion and out-performed girls, especially in math and science. Two reports issued by the American Association of University Women, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America in 199221 and How Schools Shortchange Girls in 1994,22 fueled the debate. Several books published that same year, including Failing at Fairness23 by Myra and David Sadker and Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia,24 have since become classics in gender studies.

As the millennium approached, the ground shifted. A wave of popular books by respected psychologists similarly sounded the alarm that boys were not faring as well academically and emotionally as commonly believed.25 They challenged the implications of both the “deficit” and the “girls as victims/boys as villains” arguments. In doing so, they raised the possibility that perhaps coed schools were not the pernicious “bastions of male privilege” that the gender equity project had assumed. Some commentators further rejected as dangerously wrong the myth that schools were denying girls their due. They argued that such claims diverted attention from African-American boys and their profound educational and social deficits.26

A consensus began to build that perhaps schools were “shortchanging” girls and boys in both the same and different ways. The question was how to identify the causes and how best to remedy the problem. The idea took hold that perhaps separating students by sex might effectively enhance the academic environment and address the particular needs of each group. As in the case of Detroit, the approach appeared particularly promising in the inner city where schools were struggling against teenage parenting, single-parent families, drug abuse, and all the social pathologies and despair that come with poverty. Meanwhile, schooling was becoming more demanding and competitive with accountability as the education mantra and student performance on standardized tests as the measure of success for students, teachers, and schools alike.27 Educators began searching for innovative ways to both meet those demands and to close the minority achievement gap.

Meanwhile, a school choice movement promoting state-supported alternatives to conventional public schools was gaining momentum nationwide. Some policy makers, educators, and scholars viewed that movement through the lens of the free market. They argued that the competition generated would improve all schools.28 Others saw choice as a matter of equity, to give poor families the same options long available to the rich and the middle-class.29 With the forces of gender equity and choice oddly coalescing, by the late 1990s single-sex schooling experienced an unforeseeable renaissance that defied and transcended political labels.

A pivotal moment came in 1996. In July of that year, New York City took a bold step. The city’s Board of Education announced that, with the vision and support of a wealthy benefactor, it planned to open an all-girls’ public school, the Young Women’s Leadership School. The setting was East Harlem, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Focusing on math, science, and leadership skills, the school soon achieved remarkable success, sending close to 100 percent of its graduates each year on to college. The opening of that school and the model it created, especially for disadvantaged minority girls, inspired similar programs nationwide.

A number of women’s advocates, many of them alumnae of girls’ schools and women’s colleges, hailed the effort to offer in the public sector educational benefits long available and valued within private institutions.30 Yet despite its message and mission of empowerment, the New York school immediately drew the ire of civil liberties and organized women’s group leaders who rejected the school as radically retrograde. The New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Coalition, and the New York chapter of NOW unsuccessfully pressed to prevent the school from opening. They argued that separate schools are inherently unequal and violate the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing racially segregated schools (“separate is inherently unequal”);31 that “separate” is a euphemism for “worse;” and that single-sex schools perpetuate harmful stereotypes, especially stigmatize girls, and fail to prepare students for the real world.

They further relied on a Supreme Court decision rendered just weeks before the New York school district announced plans to open the East Harlem school. In United States v. Virginia,32 the Court struck down the all-male admissions policy of the state-supported Virginia Military Institute on the grounds that it violated equal protection of the laws under the federal Constitution.33 The Court made clear that government officials may draw classifications based on sex only where the resulting policy or program promotes an “important government interest” with an “exceedingly persuasive justification;” that the “burden of proof is demanding;” and that it “rests entirely on the state.”34 The Court warned that state actors must not rely on “overbroad generalizations” that might “perpetuate historical patterns of discrimination.”35

But the justices were careful not to dismiss all single-sex schooling. “We do not question [Virginia’s] prerogative evenhandedly to support diverse educational opportunities,” the Court noted. And while sex classifications “cannot be used to denigrat[e] either men or women” or to place “artificial constraints on an individual’s opportunity,” the Court stated, they are permissible where they “advance full development of the talent and capacities of our Nation’s people.”36 The Court further acknowledged that some single-sex programs may specifically intend to overcome gender inequities – “to dissipate, rather than perpetuate, traditional gender classifications.”37 The courts have yet to resolve the practical scope of those parameters. 38 As legal scholar Cass Sunstein later observed, the problem was not that Virginia had recognized a difference between men and women, but that it effectively had “turned that difference into a disadvantage.”39

In any case, the legislative implications of the Court’s broad rationale eventually found their way into Congress. In January 2002, Congress enacted the federal No Child Left Behind Act. A provision in the Act, co-sponsored by then Senators Hilary Clinton (D. NY) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R. Tex.), and explicitly endorsed by the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D. Mass.), allowed federal funds for single-sex programs “consistent with applicable law.”40 That precise condition put the onus on the federal Department of Education to revise the Title IX regulations, initially adopted in 1975, which prohibited separate sex classes except in very limited circumstances.41 In May 2002, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) published a Notice of Intent42 to revise the Title IX regulations governing single-sex programs, and invited the public to comment on a series of legal questions.43 The announcement elicited strong opposition from civil liberties and organized women’s groups.44

More than four years later, in October 2006, OCR issued final regulations that permit non-vocational elementary and secondary schools to establish single-sex classes so long as they are voluntary, provide a “substantially equal” coeducational alternative, and are based on either a “diversity” or an “educational needs” rationale.45 The original 1975 regulations had used a “comparability” requirement whereby a school district could not exclude any student from admission to a program unless it offered “courses, services, and facilities” that were “comparable.”46 They also contained a “compensatory” rationale whereby school districts could take “affirmative action” to “overcome the effects of conditions which limited participation … by persons of a particular sex.”47

OCR drafted the revisions against the backdrop of the Court’s decision in United States v. Virginia to insulate from constitutional attack both the new regulations and school district programs that relied on them. How much rigor the Court’s “exceedingly persuasive justification” and “hard look” review infuse into the regulations’ educational need and diversity rationales, whether the evidence of need must be school specific or based on district-wide, regional or national data, and whether the diversity rationale holds constitutional weight on its own all percolate beneath legal challenges to the regulations.

Brain Research Overtakes the Course

As school districts moved cautiously in anticipation of the revised regulations, new voices weighed in on the advantages of single-sex schooling. Those voices promoted hard-wired differences to justify separating students by sex. They thus defied the basic precepts of “liberal feminism,” that women and men are essentially the same. At the same time, they carried “difference feminism” to an extreme of neurological certainty that its original proponents never envisioned. Either way, they captured the discussion and took it down a perilous path. To any observer cognizant of the law, they were inviting litigation.

For many of us who supported the New York all-girls’ school and the subsequent regulatory revisions, this turn of events was indeed troubling. Our vision was to create an academic culture where students’ self-esteem would be tied to academic achievement. It would offer specifically “at risk” students the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to overcome the hardships that lay in their way. We hoped that similar all-male schools would do the same for inner city minority boys. We made no claims as to whether any observable differences in behavior between boys and girls were due to biological rather than social factors. We imagined this new crop of programs growing organically and slowly as educators developed a set of “best practices” through experience with different populations of students. It was a cautious approach, taking one small step at a time to remedy a problem that had proved intractable to decades of federal programs targeting the economically and educationally disadvantaged. We could not foresee how a convergence of factors, including ambivalence among federal officials, misguided judgment among local school administrators, and persistence among brain research “purveyors,” would derail the course and create a ripe setting for an organized assault against single-sex schooling.

On the federal front, the revised Title IX regulations gave schools flexibility but offered local school officials no guidance on curriculum or classroom strategies. Neither Congress nor the Department of Education provided technical support or specifically targeted funds for program planning, staff development, or monitoring despite evidence that those same deficiencies had contributed to the failure of a similar California state initiative in the late 1990s.48 Proponents of brain research rationales quickly filled the void. They maintained that boys and girls learn so differently that they should be educated separately. This “movement” was largely led not by educators, but by individuals outside the education system. They drew an overstated and unproven connection between small sex differences in brain maturation on the one hand, and specific learning styles and teaching methods on the other.

Some school officials, particularly in southern states with more traditional values, found the argument deceptively appealing. Many saw sex separation as a possible solution to the “boy problem” while also addressing the continuing “girl problem.” Looking for a “silver bullet” to meet “annual yearly progress” mandates for schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, they believed that separate learning environments might improve reading test scores (and classroom behavior) among boys, and math and science scores among girls. The purported “scientific” base presented to school board members and parents a plausible justification for a dramatic departure from conventional schooling. But rather than establish separate free standing schools, which would have been costly, administratively burdensome, politically contentious, and slow on implementation, a number of school districts separated girls and boys for certain core subjects within existing coed schools.

Many of these early programs opened with little planning, public participation, or clearly articulated mission. School officials had scant understanding of why they were separating students by sex or what curricular or other strategic accommodations, if any, were in order. Nor did they fully comprehend the legal requirements outlined in the revised Title IX regulations. Unlike single-sex schools, which benefited from the experience in New York, single-sex classes were sailing on uncharted waters, at least in modern-day experience in the United States. Even the private school sector had little to offer on this count.

Local and national media soon baited the public with eye-opening stories of classrooms painted different colors, or maintained at different temperatures depending on the sex of the students; teachers advised to shout at boys, but speak softly and smile at girls; girls taught “good character,” boys taught “heroic behavior;” girls starting the day with classical music and reading, boys with physical exercise; girls sitting on carpeted areas to discuss their feelings because their higher oxytocin levels created a greater need to bond, boys allowed to move around more because of lower levels of serotonin in their brains. South Carolina’s website on “Single-Gender Initiatives” suggested teaching math to boys with “competitive games using technology;” for girls it was “musical math chairs.” For boys’ “Advisory” the focus was “ball toss” and “quality of a man;” for girls it was “friendship qualities.”49

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