Nation, World + Society

Does same-sex education deserve an 'A' or 'F'?

UCLA gender studies professor's new book delves into consequences of the practice

Class of all girls

The effectiveness of segregating the sexes in classrooms and schools, once a popular strategy for education reform, is under scrutiny.

There’s a reason for that punctuation mark in the title of UCLA gender studies professor Juliet Williams’ new book, “The Separation Solution? Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality.”

The concept of separating students by sex as a tool for education reform has fallen into a minefield of limited and dubious data as to its effectiveness. The question mark also points to a lack of sorely needed oversight to protect the most at-risk young learners from gender-based civil rights infringements, Williams said.

Juliet Williams

A popular reform strategy for the last three decades, same-sex education started becoming a hot-button topic in 2001. At that time, subtle changes to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits sex discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity — opened the door to quietly sanctioned experimentation with single-sex education.

There are often more questions than answers on this issue, Williams admits. Many of those questions will come up when she and advocates on both sides of the gendered education divide — including LAUSD officials, researchers and members of civil rights groups — meet on campus Friday and Saturday at one of the first major conferences to be held on the topic.

“There’s going to be a big debate,” Williams predicted. “A lot of people who have their hearts in the right place disagree about some very fundamental questions.”

UCLA Newsroom’s Jessica Wolf talked to Williams about her views and findings in this edited Q&A. As a high school sophomore in 1983, Williams broke the gender barrier at a school in Philadelphia and became one of the first girls to take advantage of an ordinance that revoked its male-only status.

Your book deals with the idea that same-sex education is often perceived as beneficial for some groups, like at-risk boys of color. Is that true? Or is co-education always better?

“The most accurate way to look at the whole field is that, with co-education, we know it can work. We know there are some excellent schools out there and lots of not-so-excellent schools. Among the excellent schools, some are co-ed and some are single-sex. But what the excellent schools have in common doesn’t have anything to do with gender.

There’s little reason to think we’re going to get very much value out of tinkering around with the gender question when there are so many other important questions. We’re kind of ripping kids off when we say, “We’re going to fix your education problem by giving you a single-sex school,” when what they really need are smaller class sizes, more mentoring relationships and other things to meet their needs.

How much is funding a part of the issue?

Part of why same-sex education is taking off as an intervention is that it doesn’t require the kind of money you need to make improvements such as providing nutrition, more teachers, more school hours and better professional development. All of these take resources. Just putting all the boys in one room and all the girls in another is a quick cheap fix. But that’s not a good enough reason to do it.

I think educators’ motives are always good, but we are seeing a disproportionate amount of resources directed at at-risk boys of color in comparison to at-risk girls of color. A whole generation of girls is not only being left out, but this also reinforces the misunderstanding that problems of racism or economic disadvantage only affect boys. That needs to be confronted head-on, and it just hasn’t been yet.

If you were only able to know one fact about a child to determine what kind of learning environment would be appropriate for them, research shows it’s more important to know their socioeconomic situation over their gender. Focusing on gender is a really big distraction that is diverting potentially a very huge amount of very scarce public education reform dollars.

Is Title IX clear on the issue or is it being willfully misinterpreted?

There are many people who feel Title IX has always been clear, though there have been conflicting interpretations. However, over the past year and a half, the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education has released guidelines to address any points of ambiguity. They’ve made it very clear that schools that segregate students based on beliefs that are rooted in gender stereotypes or teach those stereotypes are in violation of the law. In order to have a lawful single-sex program, the standard is now very clear: You have to have a compelling objective, and you have to be able to demonstrate that excluding one sex is related to the achievement of that objective.

How can we make sure that educators are following the law?

It’s definitely an “unfunded mandate” situation when it comes to civil rights protections in this country. And especially in an election year when you have a political party organized around the idea of shrinking the size of government. We have to realize that downsizing government also means taking away resources to ensure every citizen’s rights are upheld. What’s even more egregious, I discovered while researching my book that the U.S. Department of Education does not keep data on single-sex schools or single-sex education programs at all. That’s upsetting from a research standpoint, but it’s also more troubling from an enforcement standpoint because that means that they can’t even begin upholding the law. They don’t even know where they should be looking.

What role has the media played on the issue?

One of the most shocking things is to see the way in which discredited studies of neuroscience have dominated media coverage of this issue for 30 years, despite the fact that these studies have absolutely no credibility in any academic environment.

There is a lot of credible and nuanced research on how males and females learn differently coming out of UCLA. Linda Sax in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies is one of the leading researchers on the topic, but because her findings don’t necessarily support the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” storyline that everyone seems to want to latch onto, it doesn’t make for splashy headlines.

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