Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why The ACLU Is Challenging Single-Gender Classes In Florida Schools

The ACLU is worried single-gender classes might reinforce stereotypes of the 1950s.

Gardiner & James Families / Wikimedia Commons

The ACLU is worried single-gender classes might reinforce stereotypes of the 1950s.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed federal complaints against school districts in Broward, Hernando, Hillsborough and Volusia counties over the use of all-girls or all-boys classes. The ACLU wants the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate the programs.

StateImpact Florida’s Gina Jordan spoke with Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, about the complaints.

Q: Galen, what do the complaints say?

A: Schools shouldn’t be in the business of making crude judgments of children’s educational needs based solely on whether they’re a boy or a girl – that’s the definition of sex discrimination.

They’re using different teaching methods, environments and even curricula.

Q: Well these programs are supposed to be voluntary and some people want this option, so if the schools offer these single-sex classes as an option and there’s no measurable difference in the way these classes are taught, there’s no evidence of gender stereotypes being used, would the ACLU be OK with that?

A: When a school is going to separate boys and girls on the basis of sex they have to have a very strong justification for doing so.

And that’s actually because of the way the Constitution has been interpreted to protect against sex discrimination. That protection exists in both the Constitution and in Title IX, which is the federal law that protects against sex discrimination in public schools.

In these schools the main problem was, again, this theory of sex difference. The truth is every student learns differently in ways that are not determined by their sex.

Q: I spoke with Dr. Lisa Damour earlier this year. She runs a center for research on girls in Ohio. And she says the research shows that if you separate the sexes, they’re more apt to try new things. Like boys might show an interest in foreign languages and girls might be more interested in science. But she says it’s not all about academic outcomes. What do you say to that?

A: One of the complaints that we filed was one where there was some teacher training materials that are broadly in use. There are suggested lesson plans that differ for the boys and the girls.

And for a fraction lesson, the lesson plan suggests that the teacher give the girls a cooking lesson and ask the girls to figure out how much of each ingredient is needed to serve the class. And the boys do a science experiment to make slime that can be played with at the end of the lesson.

Now, there are always going to be girls that are interested in slime and boys who are interested in cooking.

So, you know, there are the exceptions to the rule. And our schools shouldn’t be in the business of teaching to the existing sex stereotypes and, thus, reinforcing them.

Q: So the ACLU is asking for a federal investigation by the OCR, the Office of Civil Rights. What do you hope will happen as a result?

A: We’ve asked the OCR to require the schools to return to a coeducational model, and in addition to set up training that comports with the laws against sex discrimination for all the teachers who have been trained to date in this notion of hard-wired sex difference between boys and girls.

Q: What would it take to change your mind? Would it take a big study, that shows clear data that each sex performs better when separated?

A: All of the studies, and in particular the studies that have sort of looked at the field of existing research have reached the same conclusion. So I don’t really think it’s about changing my mind, or the ACLU’s mind on this.  I think that policy makers should be basing education data on the evidence. It’s also about the law. The law is supposed to prevent exactly this type of sex discrimination – the treatment of boys and girls differently because they’re boys and girls.


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