Thursday, March 28, 2013

Single-sex education and the ACLU

by Tiffanny Walsh, ACLU of Pennsylvania Annual Fund Manager

When I made the announcement that I had accepted a position at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and would be leaving New York City in four days, most of my friends were impressed that I would just up and leave New York so quickly. 

One friend, however, accused me of being a hypocrite. 

How could I, a proud graduate of an all-women's college, be a part of an organization hell-bent on destroying schools like my alma mater?

Let's get some facts straight.

I went to a private all-women's college. Private schools are allowed to teach religion or segregate by gender; public schools - eh, not so much. The ACLU supports parents’ and students’ rights to send their children to private schools that segregate by gender or promote a specific religion; but the government should not be operating schools that do either. There is also an immense difference between an 18-year-old woman making the conscious decision for herself to attend an all-women's college and a 10-year-old girl who is forced into a single-sex classroom by her public school system. 

The ACLU opposes forced single-sex public schools and programs within public schools that divide students by gender. Over the last few years, the ACLU filed complaints against multiple public elementary and middle schools for teaching stereotypes, not kids, including  Middleton Heights Elementary School in Middleton, Idaho;  Huffman Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama; and the Van Devender Middle School in Wood County, West Virginia (which returned to co-educational programs in 2012).

Don’t think Pennsylvania is immune to the false promises of sexist educational tactics. In 2011, the ACLU-PA and the Women’s Law Project threatened to file a complaint against the Pittsburgh Public School District after they announced plans for sex-segregated classrooms at Westinghouse, a Grades 6-12 public school. Students who were included in the decision-making process notified the ACLU of obvious signs that the plan was geared more to helping boys improve their academic performance at the cost of the academic performance of girls.  According to documents provided by the district, some of the false sex stereotypes the school planned to espouse were emphasizing boys as  “warrior, protector, and provider” and letting young women have “time to explore…doing make-up and hair”.

Unfortunately, the above are just two examples of the faulty beliefs perpetuated by Leonard Sax and the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, which provided training materials to administrators and teachers in Pittsburgh. Sax and his organization teach that boys are “smart,” “arrogant,” “busy,” and “eager”, whereas girls are “careful,” “insecure,” “patient,” “focused” and “lacking independence”. I’m sorry, I must have missed the memo that we all went back in time to 1913.

The district claimed that students could opt-out of the single-sex classrooms, but doing so would mean transferring to another school altogether. So if you wanted to go to the school of your choice, you had to submit to being segregated by your gender? I'm not a lawyer, but even I know that was an obvious violation of Title IX.

Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Public School District abandoned its disastrous plans for Westinghouse. They recognized that the government should not be sending the message that boys and girls need to be separated based on harmful stereotypes. 

The programs in the public single-sex schools and classrooms that the ACLU opposes are based on flawed pseudo-science and outdated gender stereotypes. In the case of the Van Devender Middle School, even the district’s “expert witness”, Professor  Rosemary Salomone, dismissed the faulty brain research behind the school’s program (Surprise, it was based on the work of  Leonard Sax and the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education). Chief Judge Joseph Goodwin, in his decision for returning the schools to a co-ed program, stated “the court does note that the science behind single-sex education appears to be, at best inconclusive, and certain gender-based teaching techniques based on stereotypes and lacking any scientific basis may very well be harmful to students…

The course work at my all-women's college was designed for adults of either gender. My Physiological Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience textbook was the same text book used at co-ed universities. My Theatre by Robert Cohen book was no different than those used in respected theatre programs nationwide. The only obvious differences of the college experience at all-women’s Marymount College versus the co-ed Rose Hill campus of Fordham University were that Marymount had a significantly lower rate of crime and no drunken idiots strolling into class 45 minutes late. We did have a higher number of people wearing pajamas as outside clothes during the day, but really, is that such a bad thing?

There is nothing wrong with single-sex education when it is done appropriately. However, the programs designed by Leonard Sax for public schools do more harm than good. They rely on outdated gender stereotypes, they are not based on verified scientific-research, and the statistics used by Sax and his proponents are just flat out wrong. These programs do not work. 

What the ACLU has a problem with, what I have a problem with, is when public school districts take the decision out of the hands of students, when they force students into single-sex classrooms, when they use faulty "statistics" to exclude students, to segregate by gender, to use outdated techniques to teach sexist curriculum, and force harmful stereotypes onto our children. 

An alumna of an all-women's college fighting gender-based stereotypes? Wow, what a hypocrite.

This post is part of a series in honor of Women's History Month.



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