Saturday, January 25, 2014

Wisconsin Middle School's Single-Sex Classes Targeted for Complaint

The ACLU has filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Right, alleging that Somerset (Wisconsin) Middle School's single-sex education program for fifth-graders violates Title IX.  Students in Somerset's single-sex program are separated by sex for all core subjects, as well as extracurricular activities and non-academic periods like lunch and recess.

The ACLU's complaint alleges that this program violates Title IX because administrators have provided inadequate justification for the program.  They claim to be using single-sex education to introduce "academic rigor" that will help close the gender gap on certain standardized tests, as well as to quell behavioral problems, but cite no data to substantiate either problem.  The ACLU also chides officials for citing no "valid" evidence suggesting that separating students by sex is an effective means for solving either problem.  Though they have been separating some fifth graders by sex since 2008, the school puts forward no evidence that it has made any difference on test scores or disciplinary rates so far.  Instead, the complaint alleges, school officials justify sex-separation by relying on "debunked" pseudoscience on the different hardwiring of boys and girls brains, and the related "controversial" work of single-sex education proponents Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian, who advocate for teaching boys and girls in drastically different manners based on sweeping and questionable generalizations. The complaint cites some of Sax and Gurian's recommendations on which Somerset officials purport to rely:
  • Teachers should smile at girls and look them in the eye. However, teachers must not look boys directly in the eye or smile at them. 
  • Boys do well under stress, and girls do badly, so girls should not be given time limits on tests. 
  • Girls should be allowed to take their shoes off in class because this helps them relax and think better. 
  • Literature teachers should not ask boys about characters’ emotions, and should only focus on what the characters actually did. But teachers should focus on characters’ emotions in teaching literature to girls. 
  • Boys should receive strict discipline based on asserting power over them. Young boys can be spanked. Girls should never be spanked, but instead should be disciplined by appealing to their empathy. 
  • A boy who likes to read, who does not enjoy contact sports, and who does not have a lot of close male friends has a problem, even if he thinks he is happy. He should be firmly disciplined, required to spend time with “normal males,”and made to play sports.
The ACLU argues that, although Title IX regulations do allow schools to engage in single-sex education in certain conditions, Somerset's program falls outside of what is permitted and thus constitutes sex discrimination under the law.  Single-sex programs may only be used to address a particular, identified need, and moreover must be substantially related to that need. If the ACLU's factual allegations prove true, the school does not appear to have met this standard, as it provides only a vague justification for separating students and no evidence that separation is benefiting the students in any way.  Additionally, the Title IX regulations prohibit schools from relying on "overly broad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of either sex."  Somerset's fifth-grade curriculum seems to do exactly that.

The complaint requests that OCR conduct an investigation and ensure that school district correct any violations found by "reverting to a coeducational structure."  The ACLU has attained that result in filing similar complaints against other school districts (e.g. here and here)  We'll see if the Somerset case follows the same course.