“Busy Boys, Little Ladies”: This Is What Single-Sex Education Is Really Like

What Women Really Think
May 20 2014 11:25 AM

“Busy Boys, Little Ladies”: This Is What Single-Sex Education Is Really Like

girl_perfume
In one Florida classroom, girls were awarded for good behavior with perfume.

Photo by strelka/Shutterstock

Supporters of single-sex education in public schools claim that it's meant to provide the best education to both boys and girls. Critics worry that it reinforces gender stereotypes and ignores individual differences or the general needs all kids have, regardless of gender. Now a new complaint by the ACLU of Florida against the state's second largest school district suggests the critics were not only right, but may have underestimated how serious the problem is.

Hillsborough County has sex-segregated classes in at least 16 schools, starting in elementary school, and including two single-sex middle schools. According to the complaint, the curriculum and teaching styles are very different for boys and girls, based on the discredited theory that boys and girls are born with dramatically different learning styles. 

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For instance, all new teachers in single-sex classes must attend the professional development session "Busy Boys, Little Ladies" (geared toward kindergarten teachers) and another simply called "Gender Differentiation: Boys and Girls Learn Differently." According to the ACLU, "[T]eachers are trained that girls are not good at abstract thinking and learn best through building relationships, while boys excel in concrete thinking and learn best through competition." The ACLU provides this example:

Teachers of boys are invited to a program entitled "Engaging Students with Debate and Discussion," where they are instructed on how to "engage students in higher level discourse." Teachers of girls, on the other hand, are invited to a program called "Creating Connections with Girls" and instructed that "girls will learn better if they believe a teacher cares about them."

Dana Liebelson at Mother Jones goes into more detail, explaining that boys in Hillsborough are taught to exercise before math class and are allowed to play with electronics as a reward for doing well. In one classroom, girls who do well get perfume. The programs overall peddled gross stereotypes about both boys and girls, assuming boys are incapable of human feeling and girls are too emotional to handle the challenges of abstract thinking.

The complaint quotes directly from the District’s Single Gender Education Legal and Educational Rationale Brief, and includes such gems as, "Boys tend to prefer non-fiction over fiction. Boys like to read descriptions of real events or illustrated accounts of the way things work, like spaceships, bombs, or volcanoes." What about girls? "Story problems are a good way to teach algebra to girls. Putting the question in story format makes it easier for girls to understand, and more interesting as well," the district brief says, adding, "With boys, you can stimulate their interest by focusing on the properties of numbers per se."

Proponents of single-sex education may claim to be all about maximizing children's potential, but this ACLU complaint suggests the opposite—that the real result is stifling any children who dare buck gender stereotypes. A girl who wants to be a computer programmer, a girl who's a budding athlete, a boy who wants to write poetry, or a young man who wants to be a psychologist are all entering a classroom that is hostile to their talents and ambitions. Even if the ACLU of Florida can't get the schools to stop, hopefully they can educate parents about the dangers of these kinds of classrooms and encourage them to yank their kids out. 

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

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