Learn about single-sex education in public schools.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 stated that single-sex education could be provided by recipients of federal education funds, but the lawmakers left the details to be worked out in regulations. Regulations issued in 2006 clarified the conditions for providing single-sex classrooms and extracurricular activities, and expanded the former rules on single-sex schools.
Traditionally, public schools, unlike private schools, did not offer single-sex education. Today, at least 366 public schools throughout the nation are either entirely single-sex or have single-sex classrooms. More and more school districts are evaluating the pros and cons of single-sex education. While most public schools will remain coeducational, there may be good reason to make single-sex schools and classrooms available to some public school students, particularly in schools with underprivileged students and in schools showing repeated poor performance.
It Could Happen Anywhere
Parents, teachers, and students in the school district of Greene County, Georgia, were surprised to hear that their schools were embracing single-sex education in a big way. The school board unanimously decided that, beginning in the fall of 2008, all classes in all county schools will be single-sex classes. The move was designed to combat the significant problems of this rural school district, such as poor test scores, increasing dropout rates, and teen pregnancies. Under the plan, elementary school girls and boys will attend separate classrooms and those in grades 7 through 12 will attend separate schools. Greene County is the first entire school system in the U.S. to convert to single-sex education.
The local reaction to the announcement has been mixed. Some parents and teachers were optimistic that the change would improve performance of both girls and boys. One parent was outraged and disgusted, and there was talk that some teachers were considering leaving the district. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said that there were insufficient facts to determine the legality of the plan. The student reaction is unknown. But, with the district schools ranking 332 out of 369 in Georgia and with SAT scores substantially below state and national averages, the school board believed that "big steps" were necessary to turn things around.
The No Child Left Behind Act authorized local school districts to use federal funds for "innovative assistance programs." An example of an innovative assistance program is one that provides same-gender schools and classrooms. The Act directed the Education Department to issue guidelines for local districts seeking funding for single-sex programs.
Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education amended regulations under Title IX to clarify and modify the rules pertaining to single-sex schools, classes, and extracurricular activities in elementary and secondary public schools. The new rules expand flexibility for recipients of federal funds to provide single-sex education and explain how single-sex education can be provided consistently with the requirements of Title IX.
Note: The rules discussed in this article apply solely to non-vocational public schools. Vocational schools must admit students of both sexes.
Before they were amended, the regulations under Title IX permitted recipients of federal funds to operate a single-sex public school for students of one sex if the recipient also operated a substantially equal single-sex school for the excluded sex. Under the new rules, a recipient that operates a single-sex public school for students of one sex must also provide a substantially equal single-sex or coeducational school to students of the opposite sex. Thus, if a school district provides a single-sex high school for girls, it has the option to provide a substantially equal single-sex or coeducational high school for boys.
Single-Sex Classes and Extracurricular Activities
The new regulations outline the requirements for coeducational schools that elect to provide single-sex classes. A recipient of federal education funds is permitted to provide single-sex classes if the following requirements are satisfied:
1) Each single-sex class is based on an important educational objective;
2) The recipients implement the important educational objective in an evenhanded manner;
3) Student enrollment in a single-sex class is strictly voluntary; and
4) The recipient provides to all other students a substantially equal coeducational class in the same subject.
The same rules that apply to single-sex classes apply to single-sex extracurricular activities.
Proponents of single-sex education claim that separating school-age boys and girls into separate classrooms benefits both the boys and the girls. That is the experience of Jefferson Middle School
in Illinois after only a half semester with voluntary same-sex classes for 7th
graders. School officials report higher grades, better attendance, and less trouble-making for all students. Moreover, girls are improving in science and math, and boys are doing better in reading and writing.
The theory underlying single-sex education is that boys and girls learn differently because of actual differences in how their brains process information. When they are in separate classrooms, teachers can adapt their teaching methods to take advantage of the particular learning techniques of boys and girls. For example, girls tend to prefer teamwork, whereas boys are motivated by competition. To make single-sex education work, however, teachers accustomed to teaching coeducational classes must be trained in teaching techniques for single-sex classes.
Another benefit of single-sex classes is that students are not continually distracted by members of the opposite sex. There is less emphasis on clothing and acting out to get noticed by the opposite sex. Girls may be more likely to raise their hands to participate in class. Both boys and girls have improved concentration. Studies have shown that underprivileged boys in particular benefit from single-sex education.
There are some opponents of single-sex education who oppose all segregation of any kind. To some, the idea of substantially equal schools, classes, or extracurricular activities is reminiscent of the "separate but equal" policy for racially segregated schools. They also question how a coeducational class for both sexes can be substantially equal to a single-sex class for one sex.
Some have argued that single-sex education is a step back from hard-won gains brought about by the feminist movement. In their view, interaction between girls and boys in secondary school furthers the goal of equality in the workplace, whereas separate classrooms reinforce gender stereotypes.
Studies show that single-sex classes may work to the advantage of some girls and some boys. In single-sex classes, some students make better grades and behave better. The regulations under the No Child Left Behind Act provide guidance for school districts that wish to implement single-sex classes without violating Title IX. In the best of both worlds, a school district would provide substantially equal single-sex and coeducational classes for both girls and boys. Then parents and students could decide which learning environment better suits each student.