Separating the Girls from the Boys

By Wendy Kaminer

        Next fall, all academic programs in Greene County, Georgia public schools will be segregated by sex, if the Greene County Board of Education has its way.  Last week, the board voted unanimously to mandate single sex education in all county schools.  This controversial mandate is of questionable legality: the U.S. Department of Education recently eased prohibitions on sex segregation in public schools, but, “enrollment in a single sex class should be a completely voluntary option for students and their families,” a Department press release stressed.
        Why is the Green County Board of Ed so anxious to test the limits of federal anti-discrimination law (and constitutional guarantees of equality?)  It assumes that prohibiting coed classes will improve academic performance in troubled schools throughout the county.  "Girls tend to do better in small groups. Quiet time. Boys tend to do better when they are able to express themselves," board chair Janice Gallimore declares, parroting resilient stereotypes about male and female learning styles.  “We've got a school district that needs immediate change.” school superintendent Shawn McCollough explains.  “All of the research says that when you go to single gender schools, it's positive improvements for the kids.”  In other words, “Studies show …”  Except that they don’t.

        “(S)eparating by sex is not the solution to gender inequity in education,” according to a 1998 report by the American Association of University Women.  More recently the AAUW questioned the wisdom of the 2006 federal regulations that eased limits on single sex education (which were also opposed by the ACLU.)

         But support for sex segregated schools, which has been building for some 15 years, is not based on facts so much as bias and wishful thinking about cognitive sexual difference.   Interestingly, dramatic increases in sexual equality over the past 40 years have not been matched by decreases in support for conventional notions of masculine and feminine aptitudes and styles.  People who have learned not to generalize about what comes naturally to members of different races and ethnicities don't necessarily hesitate to generalize about what’s natural for men and women.  When we’re talking about sex, separate but equal has persistent appeal.

        It will be interesting to see how civil rights and civil liberties advocates respond to the Greene County ban on coeducation.  Single sex education is increasingly fashionable, but as the ACLU has stated, “it fixes and reinforces in students of both sexes stereotypes and negative attitudes about themselves and one another, and builds upon the historic sexism that has denied all students truly equal opportunity, access, and equal treatment in American education.”  The ACLU strongly opposes sex segregated public schools; advocates of equality in Greene County Georgia should take note.

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