THE BLOG
09/06/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

Gender Segregation and Civil Rights

Last week, I had the strange experience of debating Christina Hoff Sommers on the topic of single-sex schooling just a few miles from where the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic march for civil rights was being celebrated. If you were not aware, single-sex classrooms have experienced a revival in the last few years due to a 2006 reinterpretation of Title IX that was implemented in spite of considerable opposition from civil rights groups.

If you are also wondering why a neuroscientist (me) would be debating such a topic, I should mention that among the hundreds of American schools that now routinely segregate boys and girls for some or all of their academic classes, a large number base their new pedagogy on erroneous claims about gender differences in children's brains. Elsewhere, I and other scientists have debunked these claims, which derive from a few pop psychologists who do a lot of teacher training in our public and private schools. And I'm happy to say that when single-sex classes in one such school -- Van Devender Middle School in West Virginia -- were successfully challenged a year ago, federal judge Joseph Goodwin concurred that brain-based rationales for sex segregation are nothing more than "pseudoscience."

In our debate last week, which was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, I also presented two other lines of research that fail to support single-gender education. First, I summarized the voluminous educational research which demonstrates -- contrary to many people's belief -- that single-sex classrooms do not produce better academic outcomes than coeducational classrooms. Of course, there are some excellent single-sex schools out there, but as careful research has demonstrated, the advantage at such schools derives not from their gender isolation, but from the better students, richer resources, and many other benefits they are able to provide. When comparable students are enrolled in comparably-advantaged coeducational schools, the academic outcome is equally impressive. What's more, current research finds that boys, in particular, learn better in classrooms with greater numbers of girls. Since boys today are generally faring more poorly in school than girls, as Sommers and many others have noted, the move toward single-sex instruction seems especially misguided.

The other line of research that argues against single-sex schooling derives from social psychology, and brings us back to civil rights. In the 50 years since the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," researchers have thoroughly validated the deep wisdom in the Supreme Court's unanimous decision. Whether we divide groups by race, religion, age, or -- yes -- gender, segregation inevitably promotes stereotyping and prejudice. And children, who learn which attributes society values from the way adults divide groups of people, are especially vulnerable to this kind of prejudice.

You don't have to look far to find evidence of stereotyping and sexism in single-sex schools, such as the failed California experiment to implement all-girls' and all-boys' academies in six different districts in the late 1990s. Once their students were divided, teachers defaulted to traditional stereotypes to direct their classrooms, such as the idea that boys need strict discipline and girls need gentle nurturing. Within just three years, nearly all the schools had returned to coeducation. Another recent study found that middle school students gave increasingly stereotyped answers to "Who is better at math?" and "Who is better at language arts" as a function of the number of single-gender classes each child was enrolled in during the course of each day. Yet other research has looked within single-gender schools themselves and found evidence of strong sexist attitudes in all-boys' schools and a kind of "pernicious" sexism, like dumbing down of math and science courses, in all-girls' schools.

Single-sex school advocates often argue just the opposite -- that gender isolation frees boys and girls from comparison with each other and therefore reduces sexism and discrimination. By the same logic, African-American students could escape daily incidents of racism by attending all-black schools. But of course, we now know that integration, not segregation, is the best way to reduce prejudice and stereotyping in the society at large. Coeducational schools are certainly not free from sexism and discrimination (against both girls and boys), but they provide far greater opportunity to address the issues, and most importantly, create a space for girls and boys to interact in purposeful collaboration -- as they will need to do in adult workplaces.

Sommers and other advocates also like to argue that because single-sex schooling is voluntary, it is not harmful like the mandatory racial segregation of old. But single-sex schooling has a similar historical origin: girls were long denied an education equal to boys, and women, like people of color, remain subject to implicit bias in both workplace and civic spheres. The fact is, gender-segregated classrooms, even when freely-chosen, create an institutional sexism that reinforces beliefs about men and women's intellectual inequality in the larger society.

If he were alive today, I wonder what Martin Luther King Jr. would make of gender segregated classrooms. To liberally adapt his most famous line in his most famous speech on that momentous day a half-century ago: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their X or Y chromosomes, but by the content of their character."

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