Separate but Unequal- Sex Segregated Classrooms on the Rise

by Intern Mary Ann

As you’re probably aware, Title IX is turning forty this year, which means celebrating four decades of fighting the good fight against sex discrimination in education. Cheers to that! But, according to a new Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) study, the fight drags on. The FMF study uncovered a rise in sex segregation in public K-12 schools after the Bush administration (surprised?) weakened Title IX restrictions against the practice in 2006. They found that over 1,000 public schools, mostly elementary and middle schools, have initiated single-sex classes within the last few years. And while 1,000 schools is obviously still just a tiny fraction of the US public education system, the possibility remains that we’re creating a new ‘separate but unequal’ education situation.

For most of the schools looked at, the decision to split students along gender lines was made without thought to any “scientific evidence that sex separation was needed to achieve desired educational outcomes for girls and/or boys.” Now, I’m not saying single-sex education doesn’t have its supporters. Many women speak incredibly reverently about their time at all-female institutions, whether at the university-level or lower. Maybe you’re one of them! If you are though, you probably made the conscious choice to attend an all-girl’s school, or at least your parents did so for you. But for these students, participation in single-sex classes isn’t voluntary. Some neighborhoods have even lost altogether the option of sending their kids to coed schools. 

This is a problem for several reasons. The biggest, most glaring, issue is that these single-sex classes quite simply are not equal. Student to teacher ratios vary. Sex stereotypes are used to teach girls and boys differently, obviously under the assumption that boys and girls, as groups, learn differently. The schools often make little effort to evaluate students’ progress to ensure outcomes meet or exceed those of coed classrooms. And all of that before you even take into account the children who don’t comfortably identify as girls or boys. What happens to them in a system like this?

As FMF director Sue Klein says, “As Title IX celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, efforts should be focused on creating more gender equitable coeducation which counteracts, rather than reinforces, sex stereotypes.” In a world where another new study, this one by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that women still carry the bulk of housework and child rearing duties on top of full time jobs, it’s important we not allow even subliminal messages about where girls and boys ‘belong’ or what they’re ‘naturally’ best at to seep into our classrooms.


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