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By Galen Sherwin, Staff Attorney, ACLU Women's Rights Project

When it comes to public education, there is no doubt that we are in a crisis, particularly when it comes to low-income and minority students. Unfortunately, the search for solutions has led to a movement across the country to establish single-sex classrooms and schools, many of which rely on the faulty theory that girls and boys learn differently and need to be educated separately. This is not a solution. Our sons and daughters deserve schools free from discrimination and stereotypes, including gender stereotypes.

Last week’s news out of Madison, WI, indicates that state education officials share this concern. They have put a hold on a proposed sex-segregated school, Madison Prep, asking the school’s proponents to provide scientifically based evidence showing that separating boys and girls will get educational results.

That will be much harder for the school to do following the publication of an article in the prestigious journal, Science, debunking the “pseudo-science” behind this troubling trend. According to the authors, sex-segregated education, “is deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence. There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex (SS) education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.”

What single-sex education looks like in the classroom can be downright scary. For example, influential proponents assert that boys are naturally better at math due to daily surges of testosterone, and that full female participation in athletic programs is “unrealistic” due to girls’ biology. Commonly used training materials advise that boys should be shouted at and allowed to jump around during class, while girls should be allowed to take off their shoes and should not be given timed tests because they don’t perform well under stress.

The truth is that all children learn differently, regardless of sex, and the differences between individual boys and individual girls are much greater than the difference between boys as a group and girls as a group. We’ve all known kids who don’t conform to gender stereotypes like the girl who likes to run around and toss footballs, the quiet boy who prefers to work collaboratively.

The Madison proposal offers many of the elements that we know work in education: extra resources, smaller class size, and an academically focused curriculum — and many in the community have welcomed it for that reason. But the bottom line is that coeducation is not the problem, and sex segregation is not the solution. The Science article pounds home that in an era of evidence-based policy-making — and severe budget cuts — it makes no sense to adopt an educational policy that is founded on both faulty data and outdated views about the “nature” of men and women. We hope that officials in Madison take heed and remove sex stereotypes from the equation.

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