MIDDLETON, Idaho — When an Idaho school district responded favorably to a principal’s idea to establish separate-sex classrooms, there was little concern that the district would run afoul of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But that’s exactly what happened in the Middleton School District, one of many school systems being singled out by the ACLU’s “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign.

Launched in 2012 with the sending of “demand letters” to school districts in six states, the ACLU campaign seeks to eliminate single-sex programs that it says “rely on and promote archaic and harmful sex stereotypes” by using methods tailored to a particular gender.

According to the ACLU, examples of these “harmful sex stereotypes” include teachers addressing boys in a louder voice and more directly than they would female students or girls being allowed to take tests without time limits because they allegedly do not perform well under stress.

The “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign has expanded its reach rapidly in the past two years and now includes school systems in 24 states. In many cases, school districts have ended their separate-sex programs after communication with or action by the ACLU. School systems found to have noncompliant programs risk the loss of federal funding.

Currently, the organization has complaints pending with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights against the Middleton School District in Idaho and the Somerset and Beloit districts in Wisconsin. The Somerset School District has discontinued its same-sex program because of scheduling changes, but the ACLU is still seeking an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights.


‘Infected’ With ‘Impermissible Stereotypes’

Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s women’s rights project, said the training most fifth-grade teachers in the district received may have “infected” them with “impermissible stereotypes,” warranting remedial action.

“It wasn’t just one training,” Sherwin said. “It was a process over the course of the program’s implementation and then continuation over several years. Teachers were trained multiple times as well as exposed to materials that contained unlawful generalizations about boys and girls.”

Randy Rosburg, Somerset's administrator, said two of the five teachers in the program have since retired, as has the principal of the school with the separate-sex classrooms, adding that the ACLU is recommending “diversity training” for the teachers who remain.

“If they’re looking at clarifying behavior,” Rosburg said, “it’s a pretty small group of folks.”

Additionally, the ACLU is analyzing records and seeking information from districts in Florida and Texas, where same-sex programs are in place or being considered.

Sherwin said the ACLU objects to single-sex programs because they are often based on broad generalizations about the way boys and girls learn.

“Our main concern is that not all boys and not all girls conform to those sex stereotypes,” she said.

Although Sherwin said separating sexes in schools can be appropriate in certain instances, such as athletics or performing arts, she said the justification must meet legal and constitutional standards.

The risk, Sherwin said, is that separate-sex classes or schools lacking such justification could result in inferior services for students of one sex or another.

Also, even when single-sex settings are permitted, Sherwin said they cannot use teaching methods based on sex stereotypes.

“In our experience, most of the programs operating around the country do not have an adequate justification for separating boys and girls,” Sherwin said. Nor, she added, do most lead to improved educational outcomes.


Positive Experiences

However, Middleton Superintendent Richard Bauscher said his district’s experience with single-sex classes, which are only in place at Heights Elementary School and in which participation is optional, is that students in these classrooms do better academically than those in mixed classrooms. The program has been so successful, he said, that it has a waiting list.

Likewise, the Beloit, Wis., district, which has four single-sex classes in two schools, said in its response to an ACLU complaint to the Office of Civil Rights that test scores from 2007 to 2011 for the single-sex classes showed students in those classes were, on average, more proficient or advanced in math or reading than the state average.

Margaret Ferrara, associate professor of education at the University of Nevada-Reno, who has done research on single-sex education for teachers, said the benefits to separating the sexes in the classroom are typically more qualitative than quantitative.

Because of the multiple variables involved, she said, it is difficult to establish, for example, that test scores go up because of single-sex learning methods. This, she said, would require tracking students, not classes, and doing so over a longer period of time.

Ferrara’s latest research analyzes all-boy public schools in the United States and why students in them succeed. She has found that these schools, which are primarily in urban settings, not only focus on learning, but helping students understand who they are as males.

“The curriculum is centered around self, pride of culture, celebration of academics and community service, with programs built in for leadership, boys working in teams and project-based learning.” She added, “It’s the kind of community building we sometimes lose in mixed-gender schools.”

She said by targeting same-sex programs and removing gender from the teaching equation, she believes the ACLU is trivializing education strategy. Teachers, she said, need to be aware of their understanding of sex as they devise ways to teach.

Ferrara is a board member of the Montgomery Center for Research in Child and Adolescent Development founded by Dr. Leonard Sax, a family physician and author of several books on sex-based differences.

Sax and two other proponents of single-sex education, Michael Gurian and David Chadwell, are cited in the ACLU’s “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign preliminary findings report as key influences in advancing separate-sex education in public schools.


Catholic History of Success

Catholic schools, and other private entities, are not part of the ACLU campaign, since they are not subject to the constitutional requirements concerning education. 

Matt Russell, executive director of the secondary schools department of the National Catholic Educational Association, said Catholic schools have a long history of successful single-sex education and that some have used Sax’s methods in employing it.

About 13% of Catholic schools are all-male, and another 18% are all-female. Most of these, he said, are at the high-school level, and all report being very successful with their students.

“It’s sort of a tried-and-true educational method for us,” Russell said of separate-sex education.

Catholic schools have a good track record of meeting students where they are and helping them to move on from there. In that respect, Russell said, using methods — some gender-driven — that maximize a student’s chances for success make sense.

Students in such schools, Russell said, say they appreciate not having to deal with the distraction of a co-ed environment. The single-sex setting, they find, eliminates rather than fosters sex stereotypes that exist in co-ed classrooms.

Russell said single-sex schools were initially thought to be better for girls, but have also been found to be of benefit to boys, especially when it comes to teaching the humanities and the arts. Much of Sax’s research on the benefits, he said, has to do with meeting students where they are developmentally.

“We know boys and girls reach developmental stages at different times,” said Russell. “That is [Sax’s] point.”

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.