Single-sex classrooms might be a thing of the past for most school districts in the U.S., but new guidance issued this week by the Department of Education suggests the practice is still used widely enough to raise concerns about possible Title IX violations.
The guidelines apply only to public schools receiving federal financial assistance, and they do offer some exceptions to a general no-single-sex classroom rule. Schools may offer single-sex P.E. classes for contact sports, for example, and separate boys and girls for sex-ed instruction.
Schools may also provide boys- or girls-only classes to strengthen enrollment in particular courses or programs, or when a gender division meets the “particular, identified educational needs of its students.” Enrollment must be voluntary, and a “substantially equal” co-ed class must be offered as well. Vocational courses, like shop class, are never OK to offer on a single-sex basis, the document says.
The American Civil Liberties Union celebrated the new guidelines. Two years ago, it released a report that included examples of single-sex classrooms it found egregious: a Virginia school that decided boys are better suited to learn “pure” math while girls need real-world applications; a school in Maine where sixth-grade boys started the day by exercising and sixth-grade girls read the morning paper; a Wisconsin school district that collected teacher training materials on how to ask male and female students separate literature discussion questions.
Single-sex classrooms are rare in the Seattle area, with all-girls or all-boys Catholic schools being the common exception. Elsewhere, however, they appear to be more common in public schools. A Monday story in The Oregonian featured a high school outside Portland that has offered an all-girls welding, computer technology and wood shop class since 2009. (Co-ed shop classes are also offered.) A recent New York Times story featured a district in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that serves a high-poverty community and is turning to single-sex education in an attempt to improve dismal student achievement.
Advocates of the single-sex approach say it can remove distractions, especially for boys, who often lag behind girls in their reading and math scores. But critics say there is little scientific evidence to support the approach, and it often reinforces stereotypes.
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