a bird and a bottle


Are Gender Segregated Public Schools OK?
November 18, 2006, 11:22 am
Filed under: feminism/s & gender, news

Update: a reader pointed out to me that this post is long on opinion (and perhaps too reiminiscent of Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondents’ speech joke that Bush governs from his gut), and short on hard data, and that’s true. I’m not sure why the prospect of single-sex public schools bothers me so much, but it does. And what’s why I post about it – to get responses and help sort through why this gets under my skin. This same reader also pointed out that perhaps whatever benefits there are to single-sex education should not be limited to people who can afford private school. And I agree with that. But I’m not sure that single-sex public schools are the right answer. I’d love to read whatever thoughts people have on this issue, so please comment away.

Alas, a Blog has a post up about the gender segregation of college majors, which had been decreasing for many years but now seems to have stalled. The post reminded me about a recent flurry of news about the Bush administration’s decision to authorize separate classes and even separate public schools of boys and girls in which children could voluntarily enroll.

These programs trouble me both on an instinctive level and on a legal level. On that gut reaction level, I find these programs troubling because, though single-sex education may be good for some boys and girls, I am not sure that it is into these programs that the federal and state governments should be pouring valuable resources.

Legally, the government’s sanctioning of single-sex public schools raises a number of red flags. Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin, who has written extensively about Equal Protection jurisprudence, posted his (very helpful) take on the legal issues wrapped up in single-sex schools. Certainly the parallel between the language of racial segregation before Brown v. Board of Ed. mandated desegregation (“separate but equal”) and the Bush administration’s language about this program (“substantially equal”) should raise the specter of a return to the days in which “separate but equal” was endorsed, despite the fact that separate but equal is inherently unequal. But the legal question that I find most interesting is whether these gender segregated schools will perpetuate stereotypes about men’s and women’s abilities and about gender roles. If they do, which it seems likely to me that they will, they will not be able to pass muster under the Court’s current equal protection/sex discrimination jurisprudence.
You may be wondering what stereotypes I believe this system is likely to enshrine. In addition to notions about childrearing and professional responsibilities, sex segregated schools run the risk of furthering the perception that women are not as able at math and science as are men and that men are not as good at communicating as are women. Even if these ideas were grounded in some scientific data (which I do not concede that they are), it would be a great injustice to allow them to continue by not encouraging girls to engage on topics not traditionally seen as their strengths, and allowing boys to avoid communicating with girls simply because it is a challenge. (By the way, I am sure there are scientific studies supporting both sides of this debate.)

(photo source)


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4 Comments so far
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[…] Balkinization: Are Same-Sex Schools Constitutional? The key issue, as I explain below, is whether single-sex education revives old stereotypes about women’s roles, whether single sex education sacrifices girls’ interests to benefit boys, and finally, whether single-sex education is a cheap fix that does little to solve longer term issues of quality education in inner-city schools. These are key questions to consider in assessing whether the new Bush Administration regulations are constitutional. Curtsy: A Bird And A Bottle. […]

Pingback by Link Farm & Open Thread #40 « Creative Destruction

[…] Balkinization: Are Same-Sex Schools Constitutional? The key issue, as I explain below, is whether single-sex education revives old stereotypes about women’s roles, whether single sex education sacrifices girls’ interests to benefit boys, and finally, whether single-sex education is a cheap fix that does little to solve longer term issues of quality education in inner-city schools. These are key questions to consider in assessing whether the new Bush Administration regulations are constitutional. Curtsy: A Bird And A Bottle. […]

Pingback by Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Link Farm & Open Thread #40

this story actually inspired an impressivly long string of emails amongst my family and extended family (most of which happen to be educators). the consensus was that most women we know who have had single-sex education (mostly catholic schools) loved it. interestingly, the ones we know all turned out to be badass women’s and queer rights activists and credited the early all-girl atmosphere in helping them find their voices. the problem though, is the boys. b/c there were numerous accounts, mine included, of all-boy spaces being counterproductive. in my experience they often produce underachivement (for fear of being the nerd), rampant homophobia, and sometimes physical abuse. not sure where that leaves us though, b/c it’s hard to have an all-girl space without figuring out something to do with the boys…

Comment by maxwell

Maxwell, I really appreciate your comment on this, especially given my evident ambivalence/confusion. Having always gone to co-ed school, and being a women’s rights activist (and hopefully a badass one at that), I don’t have a lot of insight into single-sex schools, other than to say that for me, I think coeducation was really important. It helped me not be afraid to speak out in front of boys (now men), and to be aware of whether we (girls and now women) were getting the same fair shake at classes, sports, etc. that the boys did, and to figure out how to broach topics that made both boys and girls a little uneasy. I can definitely see how single-sex girls schools could produce some really confident, outspoken, and truly badass women. But I can also see your point about the flip side of that “good for girls” coin – that it might be bad for boys. This is all just to say that I remain unsure of what I think, but feel that your comment points out an important potential result of single-sex education that may often be ignored because the focus is so often on what’s best for one gender or another, as opposed to what’s best as we work toward a more just, progressive, and open society. (I know, it sounds awfully cheesey and idealistic to say that’s the goal. But if we’re not working toward that, then what?….)

Comment by bean




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