Feds target ‘sex stereotypes’ in US classrooms

The Obama administration is moving to outlaw public school curriculum establishing single-sex classrooms, where boys are taught about bikes and girls are quizzed about bracelets.

The Education Department issued guidance this month to clarify George W. Bush-era regulations that expanded the use of gender-specific education.

Groups have increasingly questioned the legality of education policies that have cropped up in the years since the 2006 rule was enacted. 

“As we receive increasing inquiries about single-sex offerings we want to be clear what federal law allows: protect civil rights and promote achievement,” Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a news release.

Civil rights groups say they hope the guidance will put an end to unproven practices that have been creeping up across the country.

Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel and director of education policy for at-risk students with the National Women’s Law Center, criticized programs that she said rely on “sex stereotypes” and “unfounded theories” that boys and girls are so inherently different that they can’t learn the same way.

The different teaching techniques being employed in core classes at K-12 co-ed schools, advocates say, violate Title IX, a law passed in 1972 requiring general equality for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding.

Disparities, critics say, range from the subject matter taught in classroom to the approach of instructors.

Boys, for instance, are being spoken to more loudly and given more time for exercise in their classes, while girls spend class time sitting quietly and working collaboratively in groups.

The ACLU has filed a total of 10 administrative complaints with the federal Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights since 2012 against schools in Florida, Wisconsin, Idaho and Texas, and sued schools in Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia in 2009 and 2012.

The 2009 case in Louisana was against Vermilion Parish, a middle school that was giving all-girl classes quizzes on bracelets and all-boy classes quizzes on bikes, according to court documents

The school was also accused of assigning all-boys classes to read Where the Red Fern Grows because boys like hunting and dogs, while all-girl classes were assigned to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond because girls prefer love stories.

“If you look at the intention behind Title IX, whatever you may think about the merits of single sex education in theory, I think it’s clear that the form that it’s taken in the majority of these co-ed schools really goes to the heart of what Title IX was designed to prevent, which is the overt different treatment of boys and girls based on generalizations about their capacities and interests,” said Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney with ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

The new guidance only impacts co-ed public schools, requiring that they identify what objectives they want to achieve by offering single-sex classes, avoid relying on gender stereotypes, and evaluate programs every two years.

But advocates of single-sex education say the new rules will kill a good thing that’s working in some districts.

Woodbridge Middle School in Virginia, said Leonard Sax, founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, is going to be one of the schools affected.

“Principal Skyles Calhoun decided to boost grades and test scores by establishing a dual academy using very different teaching styles and it’s been successful so much so that grades and test scores have soared,” he said. “He will really now have to drop that. It will put him in violation of new federal guidelines.”

Sax admits single sex classes don’t work for everyone, but he said parents who can’t afford tuition to send their kids to a private school should have the option.

“I like to say I’m a proponent for choice in education,” he said. “The single-sex format is good for some kids and not for others.”

Competitive team formats are among the teaching techniques working so well in districts offering single sex classes. 

Sax said schools divide boys into two groups and keep score for everything from academics to hallway behavior.

Studies have shown that boys want to compete against friends and girls would rather compete against strangers, he said.

“But that doesn’t work for girls,” Sax said. “If Sonia and Vanessa are best friends and you put them on opposing teams, Sonia doesn’t want to beat Vanessa, but Justin will go out of his way to knock down his friend Jason.”