Do Kids Benefit From Separate Gender Classrooms?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 14 2011 10:32 AM

Do Kids Benefit From Separate Gender Classrooms?

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Should classrooms be divided by sex?

Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images.

The ACLU announced earlier this week that it has won a suit in Vermilion Parish, La., over a local school’s program of separating classrooms by sex without parental consent. In the fall of 2009, administrators at the Rene A. Rost Middle School (RRMS) in Kaplan, Louisiana, informed parents that their students would no longer receive co-education. When some parents protested this move, the school responded by promising special co-ed classrooms, only to renege when the school year actually began (the only co-ed option was to join a special education class). The ACLU took up the case on the grounds that the school’s program violated Title IX legislation, which requires that girls and boys be given equal access to all educational programs.  After months of litigation, the Parish school board has now decided to prohibit the separate-sex classrooms until at least the 2016-17 school year.

Though separate gender classrooms might not strike you as being totally odd (many early-grade sex education classes are taught this way for arguably good reasons, for instance), the real silliness of the school’s program arises from the fact that it’s based totally on bunk science. The ACLU press release describes this case as part of a larger, flawed trend:

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Sex-segregated classes have been implemented around the country based on the discredited theories of Dr. Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian that boys and girls learn so differently that they need to be educated separately. These theories include the ideas that girls perform poorly under stress, and so should not be timed during exams; boys should be given Nerf baseball bats to hit things to relieve tension; and that boys who like to read, avoid sports and have close female friends should be forced to spend time with “normal” boys. 

A recent article in the journal Science took on these ideas, showing that they, in fact, hurt children by reinforcing strict, stereotypical gender roles, and, in any case, did nothing to improve academic performance.

But that’s not the end of the story. Apparently drawing inspiration from Sax and Gurian, the principal of RRMS took it upon himself to do a little science of his own. During the 2008-09 school year, he left the 8th graders co-ed for the first 12 weeks of the semester, and then—without parental consent or notification—moved them into separate-gender classrooms. Instructors were then told to apply gender-specific teaching methodologies. At the end of the term, the principle declared the program a success based on what he claimed were improved grades in English and math. These “findings” led the school board to expand the program in 2009-10.

However, the ALCU looked closer at student test scores and found that their marks had actually declined somewhat. And in any case, regardless of the grades, administrators should have known that this spilt was a bad idea. A huge part of school is socialization, learning to work with people different from oneself, and separating boys and girls—much like separating blacks and whites—does little to help. Plus, teaching kids that this kind of superficial, socially conditioned gender expression (wilting under stress, needing to hit things) is inherent to and, really, required of them does nothing but perpetuate a whole mess of prejudices into later life.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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