The US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has issued a new set of guidelines this week for K-12 schools who offer, or are thinking of offering, single-sex classrooms.
OCR issued the guidance in response to questions concerning the legality of single-sex classrooms, offering suggestions for how schools can offer the classes while still staying in compliance with civil rights laws.
"As we receive increasing inquiries about single-sex offerings we want to be clear what federal law allows: Protect civil rights and promote achievement," said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights. "It is our hope that this guidance will give schools, students and parents the tools they need to ensure compliance with the Title IX regulations on single-sex classes."
The idea was common in the US until the 19th century, but has recently risen back into popularity as public schools search for ways to increase academic performance, especially among poor students, under a theory that girls and boys have differences that affect how they learn and behave.
That theory, while widely disputed by social scientists, appears to be working in some schools that have tried it out. Charles Drew Elementary School outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has been offering single-sex classes for two years now. The school, which has most of its students benefiting from the free or reduced-price lunch program, saw its state rating rise in that time from a D to a C. Similar outcomes have been witnessed in other areas across the country, supporting an incease in single-sex classrooms in public schools in areas such as Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
According to the federal Department of Education, there are currently around 750 public schools across the country that have at least one single-sex class, and about 850 schools that are entirely single-sex. Government figures estimate that for the 2004-2005 school year, the earliest figures available, 122 public schools had at least one single-sex class, and 34 schools were completely one-sex.
Critics of the practice suggest that little evidence exists which suggest a difference in brain development between the sexes and separating them often reinforces gender stereotypes.
"You say there's a problem with sexism," said Rebecca Bigler, a psychologist at the University of Texas, "and instead of addressing the sexism, you just remove one sex."
The new guidance comes in response to these issues. Schools are now allowed to set up a single-sex classroom if they are able to prove that academic achievements will increase as a result of doing so, or it will improve discipline, in a way that teaching in a coeducational environment could not. In addition, coeducational alternatives must be made available and children are only permitted to participate in single-sex classes at the discretion of their families.
In addition, the guidance requires that transgender students be allowed to attend classes with students of the same identity, meaning that a student who views himself as a boy should be included in the all-boy classes, and students who identify with girls should be in attendance in the all-girl classes.
According to the guidance, "evidence of general biological differences is not sufficient to allow teachers to select different teaching methods or strategies for boys and girls."
While research does not show any academic improvements, or lack thereof, for single-sex classrooms, supporters suggest that girls have more in common with each other, as do boys, than differing genders have in common at the same age. "Yet we segregate on the basis of age, not based on any evidence," said Leonard Sax, a pediatrician and author of several books on gender differences, including "Why Gender Matters."