Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Single-Sex Education Regs Issued Today

Today the Department of Education released new Title IX regulations allowing schools to implement single-sex education.
Under this exception a recipient [school that received federal funds] would be permitted to offer a single-sex class or extracurricular activity if (1) the purpose of the class or extracurricular activity is achievement of an important governmental or educational objective, and (2) the single-sex nature of the class or extracurricular activity is substantially related to achievement of that objective.
I'm all for giving schools the freedom to experiment with creative teaching approaches, but I believe the law must put limits on this freedom in order to protect individual students from discrimination. Until today's regulations, Title IX was the limit. Now schools can use the "important educational objective rationale" as the basis for all kinds of sex segregation, including and most especially segregation rooted in stereotypes and generalizations about how girls and boys learn and what their interests are. Even well-meaning decisions to match classroom dynamics to the common belief that "girls learn by thinking and boys learn by doing" can lead to inequitable distribution in resources. I'm trying to imagine what it means to teach differently for "doing" boys and "thinking" girls, and all I can come up with is an image of boys frolicking in a well-stocked, hands-on laboratory directed by innovative teachers, while girls receive dull textbooks and monotone lectures by the likes of Ben Stein.

We've discussed this here already, but another problem is the additional disservice sex segregation does to individual students who don't conform to the generalization at issue. Evidence shows that sex is not nearly the reliable performance indicator that people think it is, which should make it difficult for schools to satisfy the regulation's requirement that segregation be "rationally related" to an educational objective. But I am not optimistic that the rationality standard will protect us. When it comes to discrimination, it is, in some courts' hands, a very weak test.

But what's more, sex segregation tends to mask that nonconformity and steer girls' and boys' interests and abilities to match stereotypes that brought about the decision to segregate in the first place. I recall my own junior high school, which by the time I attended from 1987-1990 had abandoned its formal policy of segregating girls to "home ec" and boys to "shop" in favor of a policy of individual student choice. But it should surprise no one that we girls "chose" to sew and no boys "chose" to join us. The history of formal segregation still influenced what girls and boys respectively perceived to be the correct "choice." Extrapolate this example to other areas of the curriculum, and one fears the a return to formal segregation will only exacerbate the well-documented problem of women's lack of "interest" in the sciences, which many believe is a self-fufilling prophecy that derives from subtle discrimination and stereotyping.

ACLU and NWLC have already gone on the record objecting to the proposed regulation and its final version. We will certainly follow closely any legal developments on this issue.

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