National Catholic Register


Single-Sex Schools Stand Their Ground

ACLU vs. parents in a back-to-school debate


Register Senior writer

August 27-September 2, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/28/06 at 10:00 AM


BATON ROUGE, La. — Boys-only and girls-only schools have been growing in popularity. The ACLU wants to stop that.

Some 223 public schools across the country offer single-sex classrooms, and more would like to pursue the option. But the American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue to stop the trend from growing in places like Baton Rouge.

That’s where the threat of an ACLU lawsuit prompted a Livingston Parish school board there to back off on plans to offer single-sex classes in two area junior high schools this fall. The lawsuit was filed in a Baton Rouge federal court in the name of a 13-year-old student, Michelle Selden. The school told U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola that they cannot afford the disruption that such a lawsuit would entail.

Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said, “We are relieved school officials have realized they cannot ignore the law and sex-segregate classes based on broad gender stereotypes about psychological differences between boys and girls.”

As federal regulations change, the ACLU will have plenty of single-sex classes to fight against. The numbers have already increased dramatically since 1998, when only four public schools had them. It is set to increase much more.

According to Leonard Sax, director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, prior to 1965, a majority of both public and private schools were single-gender. Between 1965 and 1990, almost all public and private schools became coeducational.

Sax said that the renewed interest in single-sex education is due to research that demonstrates differences in how boys and girls learn.

According to Sax, in the late 1970s, research began showing that girls who had previously shown high math aptitude in fourth grade were losing math ability by eighth grade.

“I attended a colloquium at the time where well-regarded psychologists were arguing that estrogen must poison the math centers of the brain,” said Sax. “In the late 1980s, we had the first studies done at all-girls schools. They demonstrated no decline in math ability. The decline was seen only in women attending coed schools.”

Sax says that these studies were highlighted in a 1992 report titled, “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” and led to a slew of new research.

“Boys and girls learn in profoundly different ways,” said Sax, author of the book Why Gender Matters (Random House, 2005).

“If you ignore those differences you end up reinforcing gender stereotypes,” he said. “Therefore, you end up with fewer girls studying math, computers and physical science and fewer boys studying languages and art.”

Separate But Equal?

Sax also highlighted a study showing greater proficiency by students in sex-segregated schools. Fourth-grade students at Woodward Elementary School in Deland, Fla., were randomly assigned to single-sex or coeducational classrooms. In the coed classes, 57% of girls and 37% of boys scored “proficient” in the writing portion of the state’s standardized test. In the single-sex classes, 75% of the girls and 86% of the boys scored “proficient.”

Yet opponents suggest that single-sex education is reminiscent of “separate but equal.”

The ACLU has long been an opponent of single-gender education.

In 1996, New York City proposed an experimental public junior high school for girls, called the East Harlem Young Women’s Leadership School, to emphasize math and science. Once announced, Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, demanded that the school not open.

Responding to the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed regulations to allow single-gender education, Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s national office, wrote: “The proposed regulations threaten to reverse years of progress, undermine existing protections against sex discrimination, violate legal guarantees of equality, and encourage school districts to provide educational programs that are inherently unequal.”

The ACLU is not alone. The American Association of University Women also opposes the move.

“It is unclear why now, after 27 years of public education under Title IX single-sex regulations, the Department of Education has determined to amend such regulations,” said an American Association of University Women position paper. In 1998, the association released “Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls,” which reported “no evidence that single-sex education is better than coeducation.”

“Mandatory single-sex education has long been decried as creating a divisive system with the potential to harm both boys and girls,” said the ACLU of Louisiana in an Aug. 3 press release. “The educational theories that promote such a split are too often based on faulty research and radically inaccurate gender stereotypes.”

Sax said comments such as those by the ACLU simply demonstrate a “profound sense of ignorance.”

“It used to be that in sex-segregated schools the girls had used books, and the boys had new books. We don’t want to go back to the bad old days where girls had home economics and boys had shop,” said Sax. “The schools that are doing this today offer comparable courses to each sex.”

“Wherever you see a woman in the U.S. who has broken new ground, an amazing number of them are from single-sex schools,” said Sax. “Astronaut Dr. Sally Ride, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright — all of them attended all-girl schools.”

Changes Afoot

According to a systematic review released by the Department of Education in 2005, of 2,221 studies, the department found a preponderance of studies that yielded results lending support to same-sex schooling.

Current Title IX regulations generally prohibit single-sex classes, and allow single-gender schools only when the district creates a separate school for the other gender. That restriction is expected to be eliminated with the Department of Education’s changes in regulations.

Educational professionals expect that more schools will join the single-sex movement once the Department of Education finalizes the new Title IX regulations that were first proposed in March 2004.

In 2002, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced the department’s intention to provide more flexibility for single-sex schools and sought public input. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 included a provision authorizing local education agencies to use local funds provided by the act to establish programs to provide same-gender schools.

Paige published a notice of intent to regulate in the May 8, 2002, Federal Register summarizing the current law. Paige also proposed amendments to regulations implementing Title IX to provide more flexibility for educators to establish such classes.

“This is a complex and sensitive issue that requires a considerable amount of consultations,” said Paige. “Our goal is to provide schools with as much flexibility as possible to offer programs that meet their needs.”

“We cannot discuss the proposed regulations until they become final,” said Chad Colby, spokesman with the U.S. Department of Education. “We expect them to come out in September or October.

While most single-sex schools ended up becoming coeducational between the 1960s and 1990s, many Catholic schools were the few to retain single-sex instruction. In fact, in one city — New Orleans — the majority of secondary Catholic schools continued to be single-gender until last year.

“Whomever you talked to, they would tell you that they attended the same Catholic school as their father and grandfather,” said Sax. “The unmarked tragedy of Katrina is that neighborhood loyalty to a particular school is gone.”

In fact, single-sex schooling is still most prevalent in Catholic elementary and high schools. According to Brian Gray, editor of Momentum Magazine, a publication of the National Catholic Education Association, a total of 441 Catholic schools in the United States are single-gender. That amounts to .8% of all Catholic elementary schools and 33% of Catholic secondary schools.

Memphis, Tenn.-based St. Agnes Academy has been an all-girls school since its founding by the Dominican Sisters in 1851. An all-boys school, St. Dominic, was added in 1956. Students at the school are coed in pre-K and kindergarten; single-sex between first and sixth grade; coed in Grades 7 and 8; and single-sex again during high school.

A study conducted at the behest of the St. Agnes-St. Dominic school board found that alumni felt that the gain in friendships during the seventh and eighth-grade years — when education is coed — outweighed the academic benefits.

Still, the school’s president, Barbara Daush, predicts that in the future, the school may begin offering single-gender math and science classes.

Daush pointed to research by Michael Gurian, Leonard Sax and Michael Thompson to explain what she sees as the increased interest in single-gender education.

“The brain research that’s been released over the past 10 years has been a big part of our program,” said Daush. “Especially in the upper school, it is important for high school girls to be separate from high school boys.

“The single most important factor for girls is their connection to their teacher,” added Daush. “With boys in the classroom, the girls become concerned with how they look and if they are being accepted by the boys. In single-sex classrooms, the barriers of girls being able to connect with the teacher are removed.”

Even more important than removing the detriments to proficient learning, Sax argued, is the fact that each gender learns differently, and learns differently in communion with same-gender peers.

“The brain research findings have made us re-examine all the things that we took for granted about boys being better at math and girls being more verbal,” said Sax. “There are profound differences with how boys and girls see, smell, hear, and learn. The reality is that both can learn very well, but only if you know how to teach them.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.