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Single-sex education won't help students in the real world


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2002

Separate but equal is making a comeback.

Separate but equal is making a comeback.

The Bush administration is pushing public funding for single-sex education, an idea most of us thought was dead in 1996 when the U.S. Supreme Court forced coeducation on the crusty Virginia Military Institute. But in an odd alliance of conservatives and militant feminists, who believe girls are intimidated into quivering silence by the mere presence of boys, sex segregation has been resurrected.

Anyone have a wooden stake handy? This idea needs to be put down for good.

A proposal published in the Federal Register earlier this month says the Department of Education plans to provide more "flexibility" for schools to offer single-sex classes and schools. And President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Act includes a $3-million appropriation for single-sex schools.

All of this is sold under the rubric of "choice," the conservative school mantra that, up to this point, has been a euphemism for taxpayer support for parochial schools. Here, the term is used to promote options within public education, but once again at the cost of a fundamental constitutional principle.

It took the better part of the 20th century to get the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize the inherent unfairness of publicly funded single-sex educational programs. Whether the case involved a nursing school for women only or a military academy with separate schools for men and women, the court acknowledged these programs tended to reinforce stereotypes and were based on broad generalizations about the different capacities and preferences of men and women. Legally, we are finally at a place where the government must view each of us as individuals, not as members of a gender. Let's not now find new ways around this.

I am old enough to remember when girls in public school were filtered into Home Ec. classes to learn cooking and sewing, as befitted their presumed future aspirations. Boys were consigned to "shop" for hands-on training in birdhouse construction -- apparently the measure of manhood back then. But even if more girls than boys ended up as homemakers and more boys became carpenters, the school assignments made pernicious assumptions about gender roles and choices.

So why are we turning back the clock now?

Much of the impetus for returning to sex-segregated schooling comes from the simplistic belief that there is a cheap, easy solution to educating the most intractable population of students: children from low-income, minority families.

In 1991, the Paul Robeson Academy in Detroit opened for black males only because black activists claimed the answer to the education crisis in their community was not integration but rigid segregation by both race and sex -- as if African-American boys were incapable of learning in a normal classroom environment. (Under legal pressure, it now admits girls and boys of all races.) In New York, the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem was established in 1996 as a public academy for girls. The school is discriminatory and should have been shut down or forced to admit boys long ago, but the feds are not interested in enforcing federal law. A complaint before the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has been pending for nearly six years with no action taken.

All told, 11 public schools are currently single-sex.

Despite all this activity, there is little actual evidence to suggest gender segregation improves learning. While the Harlem academy claims significantly better test scores for its female students relative to the rest of the school district, the achievement is easily understood without considering the chromosome makeup of its student body. The school has tiny class sizes (originally the goal was no more than 10 students per class), top-notch faculty and girls with interested, involved parents. True, if you eliminate boys, you take away the preponderance of discipline problems. But is it fair for any student, boy or girl, to learn alongside troublemakers? Schools should be made safe and nondisruptive for all students regardless of gender.

In 1998, the American Association of University Women, backtracking on a hysterical report on how girls are disserved by coed classes, took a comprehensive look at the studies of single-sex education for girls and found little advantage to it. Essentially, when schools, coed or single-sex alike, provided small class sizes, enough resources and focused academics, they succeeded in teaching. Not a surprise.

Could the Bush administration's interest in single-sex experiments be another smokescreen to divert attention from the real problems in education? Conservatives have delighted in the way the school voucher debate has riven traditional allies -- pitting African-Americans against liberals concerned about church-state separation. Single-sex schools may have a similar effect, dividing feminists to boot.

Girls and boys should be socialized in school to work together and compete against one another -- as they will have to do in the real world. And speaking of the real world, that's a place where separate but equal doesn't really exist.

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