ACLU: Dividing classes by sex promotes harmful stereotypes

Vintage photograph of girls sitting at desks typing on typewriters

Image via the ACLU

A recent report by the ACLU confirms what many of us feminists/gender advocates/smart people might already suspect: that single-sex education programs, often based in ridiculous, unfounded, and outdated gender stereotypes, don’t help kids learn and in fact can be detrimental to their social and educational experience. According to the ACLU, administrators and educators are increasingly constructing single-sex classes and curricula based on the unfounded theory that boys and girls are “hard-wired” to learn differently, leading to boys and girls across the U.S. being separated into different classrooms for all their academic classes and  taught using radically different methods.

The scenes they describe are right out of a gender essentialist nightmare: the boys’ classroom “is brightly lit and cool, and the students are allowed to run around to blow off steam. They can sit in beanbag chairs if they wish and their desks are moveable and do not face each other.” On the other hand, the girls’ classrooms “are warm and dimly lit, and students are expected to remain in their seats and face each other while they work, even if they find that distracting.
 Girls are supposed to discuss their feelings about novels while boys are supposed to discuss the action in the books.” How very 1800’s, and ll paid for by your tax dollars- scary!

Despite these disturbing trends, the ACLU confirms that these sorts of environments are not the best way for young people to learn. “There is no educational evidence that single-sex education is superior to a coeducational environment, and mounting evidence that sex separation can be detrimental to the academic performance of both sexes,” they maintain, pointing to studies that debunk these theories such as Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain, and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender.

In other words, segregation by gender doesn’t work and in fact, promotes harmful stereotypes and social behaviors.

According to the blog of the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), the ACLU report echoes the findings of a study on single-sex academic classes by the FMF back in June, which found that from 2007 to 2010, over 1,000 public K-12 schools instituted deliberate single-sex classes, reflecting a “troubling trend” that originated in the Bush Administration and its weakened restrictions on sex segregation in public schools.

The ACLU is taking this fight to the streets- they recently filed a lawsuit to challenge a same-sex education program at Van Devender Middle School (or Vandy), a public school in Wood County WV, as discriminatory . They are representing a mother and her three daughters currently enrolled at Vandy in that claim.

If you agree that children in public schools shouldn’t be segregated based on their sex, here’s a petition created to stop the practice of segregating students at Van Devender Middle School by gender, based on the argument put forth by the ACLU. You know what to do.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is a writer and advocate focusing on race, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights. In addition to her work at Feministing, Lori is an Associate Director at Planned Parenthood Global. Lori has previously worked at the United Nations Foundation, the International Women’s Health Coalition, and Human Rights Watch, and has written for a host of print and digital properties including Rookie Magazine, The Grio, and the New York Times Magazine. She regularly appears on radio and television, and has spoken at college campuses across the U.S. about topics like the politics of black hair, transnational movement building, and the undercover feminism of Nicki Minaj. In 2014, she was named to The Root 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans, and to the Forbes Magazine list of the "30 Under 30" successful people in media.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

Read more about Lori

Join the Conversation