Boys & Girls Together? Courts Deal with a Push to End Co-Ed Classes
Ask Kaleem Caire why he wants single-sex charter schools, and the Urban League president for the greater Madison, Wis., area says it would remove distractions and fears adolescents often have in classrooms, particularly when called on to show what they know.
He’ll also tell you there are many fatherless children in the minority community and too few are exposed to healthy relationships between men and women. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 66 percent of black children in the U.S. are raised in single-parent households.
“Our boys don’t have men in their lives, and teaching them how to be men among girls is a difficult thing to do,” says Caire, who would like to open two charter schools—one for boys and one for girls—in grades six through 12.
He calls the schools Madison Prep, and his business plan notes that in 2010, only 44 percent of the city’s black male 10th-graders from public high schools were found to be reading-proficient, based on Wisconsin’s annual assessment of student achievement. The number for white male 10th-grade students there was 87 percent.
Yet the Madison Board of Education nixed the plan last December. Among its objections was the cost of the two proposed schools.
Also, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction required scientific evidence supporting single-gender education before releasing the second half of funding for the proposed school. Around the time the request was made, Science magazine published a widely read study that found the advantages of sex-segregated education in public schools were “deeply misguided,” and that no solid research shows single-sex education improves students’ performance.
“It wasn’t approved because it got bogged down in people’s philosophies about what’s good and what’s not good,” says Caire, who continues his quest for Madison Prep and hopes it will open in 2014.
The United States had only two single-sex public schools in the 1990s, according to the New York Times. Today more than 500 programs offer single-sex classrooms or are entirely segregated by gender. The growth came partly from a 2006 U.S. Department of Education rule change, which gave public schools more flexibility to offer single-sex classes and schools. Enrollment must be voluntary with equal, co-ed classes available.
Guidance on the changes was scant, say some lawyers, and there are charges that many single-sex public education programs violate Title IX of the Education Amendments, as well as the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Also, many critics—and some supporters—question some theories that say boys and girls have different brain functions and should be taught separately.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been investigating single-sex public education programs, sending cease-and-desist letters to school districts and in some cases filing federal lawsuits, with varying results.
In one case, the ACLU represented Louisiana parents who claimed their children’s Vermilion Parish middle school unconstitutionally separated pupils into single-sex classes. The ACLU said the program was based on flawed data, relied heavily on gender stereotypes and had no positive effect on academic performance.
A U.S. district judge found in Doe v. Vermilion Parish that the data for the same-sex public school plan was flawed, but it denied issuing an injunction against the program. In 2011, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans said the lower court incorrectly applied the law and sent the case back. The school district settled shortly afterward, agreeing to stop the middle-school program at least until 2016.
In another case, A.N.A. v. Breckinridge County Board of Education, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky found that the ACLU’s clients lacked standing in a case against a school district that segregated students by gender and exposed them to different learning environments. The organization did not appeal the ruling.
And in August the ACLU filed a federal suit against a West Virginia school district where a middle school separated boys and girls for reading, math, social studies and science classes. In Doe v. Wood County Board of Education, the court issued an injunction preventing the district from imposing only an opt-out system. The court also said that the science behind single-sex education seems to be “inconclusive,” and that certain “gender-based teaching techniques based on stereotypes” could be harmful to students.
“The major issue is whether they are promoting or adopting a theory that boys’ and girls’ brains are so different that they need to be separated and taught with different teaching methods,” says Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “There is zero evidence that there are differences in the ways boys and girls learn or that using different teaching methods for them improves any academic outcome.”
WHERE’S THE PROOF?
Single-sex public education critics say that a curriculum based on a theory that genders learn differently violates U.S. v. Virginia, the 1996 Supreme Court case that struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admittance policy. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited existing case law that an “exceedingly persuasive justification” is needed for gender-based government action, and the classifications can’t rely on overbroad generalizations regarding different abilities between men and women.
“I don’t think anyone has shown strong research to justify it. It’s almost all based on stereotypes on how boys and girls behave, along with stereotypes about proper sexuality for boys and girls,” says David S. Cohen, a Drexel University School of Law professor whose work focuses on gender issues in the law. He wrote the law review article “No Boy Left Behind? Single-Sex Education and the Essentialist Myth of Masculinity” in 2009 in the Indiana Law Journal.
“I think [single-sex classrooms] are seen as a quick fix,” he says. “It’s easier to shuffle students around than decrease a class size, get better resources or promote better student-teacher relationships.”
Rosemary Salomone, a law professor at St. John’s University School of Law in Queens, N.Y., helped draft the proposed revised Department of Education rules regarding single-sex education. She supports single-sex education, but also finds the brain research rationale problematic, saying it promotes stereotypes.
“One of the problems is, when the federal government opened the door to single-sex programs in 2006 it didn’t give any guidance to educators. What filled the void was brain research proponents,” says Salomone, who wrote the book Same, Different, Equal.
She notes the academic success that other single-sex public school programs have had, and mentions New York’s Eagle Academy Foundation, which runs all-boy schools in New York City and Newark, N.J.
Composed largely of black and Latino students—referred to as “scholars”—in grades six through 12, Eagle Academy pupils usually attend school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and on Saturday mornings. Uniforms are required, as is parental involvement. The schools have a strong focus on students supporting classmates.
In 2010 Eagle Academy graduate rates were 87 percent, according to its website. Comparatively, the citywide high school graduation rate for black and Latino males is 43 percent. Also, 95 percent of Eagle Academy graduates go to college, according to the foundation.
Caire, who notes that the Madison Prep business plan does not focus on brain research studies, and instead focuses on social aspects of adolescent learning, hopes Madison Prep will one day be more successful than the Eagle Academy schools.
When asked whether you can teach boys and girls together to be strong, successful individuals, he says you can. “But it’s harder,” Caire adds. “And right now it’s not working.”