A trend over the past ten years has seen the separation of classrooms into single gender classes, based on the theory that children learn better when they are separated according to gender. Proponents claim that it reduces violence in the classroom and fosters a better learning climate. Opponents claim that it furthers stereotypes, and they have taken steps to reverse the trend-including going as far as litigation. They have sued three districts to stop the single-gender classes and they have sent letters to fifteen additional districts voicing their concern over the practice.
Some districts have voluntarily halted the practice, and a judge recently ordered a West Virginia school district to halt its program.
About six years ago the U.S. Department of Education legalized single sex education but only if it was completely voluntary and if the facilities and other aspects of the same sex classes were substantially equal to coed classes. The number of schools with single-sex classrooms are estimated to be between 500-1000.
Supporters of the practice claim that single-sex education allows teachers to tailor their teaching to the innate differences between how boys and girls learn. For example, girls learn math better if they are given real life examples while boys find it easier to learn math on a theoretical basis. Some proponents of single-sex education go so far as advocating that the room’s lighting be different for boys and girls—blue for boys and yellow for girls. Supporters point out that ignoring gender differences does not make them go away and that this exacerbates gender stereotypes.
The ACLU, a fierce critic of the practice (not surprisingly), claims that it violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by providing an education that is unequal. They also claim that the gender separation is not effective and that it encourages stereotypes.
There is concededly little research available on the effectiveness of single sex education. An Education Department study found that in approximately 33% of cases students in single sex schools did better on subject exams such as math and reading. In the other cases, the single sex schools had no effect on exams or the results were mixed.
Empirical evidence provided by some parents whose children attend single sex classes suggests that there is a definite difference to the way boys and girls learn. Girls tend to sit as a group and jointly discuss issues whereas boys are more physical-they walk around more, talk about sports and express themselves more loudly.