Ew, Boys: The Brewing Legal Battle Over Same-Sex Education

Does separating boys and girls in the classroom help learning or reinforce dangerous stereotypes?

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Bob Wojcieszak / Charleston Daily Mail / AP

From left: Angela Miller, Shaina Pack and Kayla Parsons are seen at East Bank Middle School in East Bank, W.Va, May 23, 2005. The school's students in grades six through eight are separated for classes in English, math, science and social studies. Other courses, including art, physical education and band, are mixed.

The American Civil Liberties Union is on a vigorous campaign to integrate Mississippi’s public schools, making requests across the state to find out which have segregated classrooms and weighing whether or not to sue.

But the investigation isn’t about racial segregation — it’s about sex-segregation. Single-sex classrooms are a growing phenomenon across the country. In 2002, just about a dozen schools had them, but now as many as 500 do, according to the Associated Press. The movement shows no sign of slowing down and has set off a pair of debates: a pedagogical dispute over whether sex-segregation makes for better education, and a legal one — which the ACLU is at the center of — about whether this sort of separation violates civil rights laws.

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Today’s argument for sex-segregation increasingly turns on scientific — critics would say pseudo-scientific — arguments about how the two sexes acquire knowledge. The separation of boys and girls into different classrooms lets administrators and teachers tailor the instruction to what they see as the different learning styles of boys and girls.

These “different learning styles,” however, may be better described as gender stereotypes. Are you a girl who is interested in mathematics in its most theoretical form — the kind of math that predominates in university mathematics departments? Well, the National Association for Single Sex Public Education — a leading advocacy organization — does not seem to think that you exist.

On its website, the group advises about teaching mathematics that “[w]ith boys you can stimulate their interest by focussing [sic] on the properties of numbers per se. With girls, you want to tie what you’re teaching into the real world. Keep it real and relevant.” For one lesson, it urges teaching boys by emphasizing the way the numbers work in the abstract — while girls should be told to bring in pineapples and pinecones to visualize the concepts. There are more stereotypes where that one came from — a lot more.

(MORE: Do Mothers Hamper Their Daughters in Math)

One way of knowing that the advocates are dealing in stereotypes rather than solid pedagogy: the science does not support what they are saying. Last fall, the journal Science published a wide-ranging study of the academic literature on same-sex education. The study acknowledged that there are sex differences in children’s brains. But it debunked the idea that these differences have a significant impact on learning.

While the Science piece did not find appreciable advantages to same-sex education, it did identify serious downsides. Separating students by sex, it said, “makes gender very salient,” which “reinforces stereotypes and sexism.” It has the same problems as segregation by race or income.  “Any form of segregation undermines rather than promotes equality,” the study said.

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But is same-sex public education illegal? It can be, if it relies on groundless preconceptions about the sexes that interfere with educational opportunities. For example, as the ACLU argues as part of their “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign, it is unacceptable for taxpayer-funded schools to “teach boys to be active and aggressive — by shouting at them, spanking them, and allowing them to toss a football in class — while they simultaneously coddle girls, using soft voices, encouraging them to talk about their feelings, and giving them untimed tests to create a less stressful environment.”

Dividing up boys and girls and teaching them in this way is a rare form of bias. It is not simply discrimination against girls or discrimination against boys.  It is discrimination against both.

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Unfortunately, in a coeducational setting, some of this gap closing would take place at the expense of the opposite gender, an outcome few would embrace. No one wants to see girls do worse in reading, or boys fare worse in science.

Here’s a thought: no one “wants” boys to fare worse in math or science – but that’s what is happening, isn’t it? Having more female math teachers and making math grades more influenced by verbal skills (which boys fare poorer on) by including more word problems does tend to reduce boys’ overall engagement and achievement in math. And people are generally fine with that.

Stuff your not being told:  hormones are powerful mind altering drugs.  http://www.avoiceformalestudents.com/are-female-teachers-biased-against-boys-are-male-math-teachers-just-better-lets-look-at-some-research/


Dear Mr. Cohen,

I appreciated reading your article posted on Time Ideas on July 16. I agree with your stance that single-sex classrooms tend to be stereotypical and biased. As a female high school student, I feel being segregated would take away many opportunities.

It is coincidental that you mentioned girls interested in mathematics in an abstract way, because that is exactly how I am. I think doing math in the way recommended by the National Association for Single Sex Public Education would be less motivating and less enjoyable. This assumption is also very stereotypical and somewhat insulting.

I agree that this segregation is more about discrimination than equality. Your use of Science's study to support this idea is very effective and helps show the problems that you propose. Other quotations you cited in this article also helped me as a reader understand your opinion and the stance of those who support single sex education.

I also enjoyed when you stated that “it's discrimination of both.” This statement is a great closing line, and it perfectly sums up your position. In addition, it is a strange yet truthful remark. The stereotypes that justify segregated education are biased in both directions. The assumptions that all girls want to talk about their feelings, that guys all want to play football, and that only men can work in the abstract are untrue and should be reconsidered by advocates for same-sex education.

Thank you for writing an article that helped reinforce my opinion and learn about others' opinions.

Katya Mullet


Worthington Kilbourne High School

Columbus, OH 43235

Bran Deditems
Bran Deditems

Sex education is not only about how to do it. It provides advice that includes the dangers of unprotected sex, promiscuity and STD's. When presented in a balanced way it helps the young make an informed choice which may even include waiting.


The abilities of male vs female should not be the issue.  During the elementary years having students - male and female together is not a problem for either sex.  These are children and maybe instead of assigning that all boys are active and all girls are passive as a reason for same sex, just provide some recess time for both to blow off a little steam.  The reality is that boys and girls are active as children and need free time to be active. 

Where same sex education can be helpful is during the time of puberty - High School years.  No girls don't suddenly become slower learners or boys become more mathematical.  Puberty is the time when we as humans discover our physical differences.  It is a distraction.  This is where separating the sexes for particular classes like Math, Science, English and History so that students during class can concentrate about the subject rather than the Jock three rows over and two seats back or the busty girl in the next row two seats in front.  Girls and boys won't worry about seeming too smart, shy, dumb, not dressing sexy enough or too sexy, etc to the opposite sex. 

There are plenty of subjects that the two sexes should interact - Home Economics or whatever its called today, Art, Mechanics and Wood Shop (car maintenance and simple home repair) and even gymnastics.  One group of classes in academics and requires and needs the students to concentrate on the subject; the other groups of classes is to teach the students how to solve life problems and work together to solve these life problems.  Thus, both males and females will be better prepared to deal with each other and life in business and college. 

I went to an all female High School, I have no problem in speaking up for myself.  My husband went to an all male High School and he has a great deal of respect for females.  We both have confidence in our abilities as adults and have fond memories of our high schools.  Both schools the focus was on academics, not on psuedo-machoism or stereotypes of what is male / female. 

Vivian Mac
Vivian Mac

"On its website, the group advises about teaching mathematics that

“[w]ith boys you can stimulate their interest by focussing [sic] on the

properties of numbers per se. With girls, you want to tie what

you’re teaching into the real world. Keep it real and relevant.” For one

lesson, it urges teaching boys by emphasizing the way the numbers work

in the abstract — while girls should be told to bring in pineapples and

pinecones to visualize the concepts. There are more stereotypes where

that one came from — a lot more."

The National Association for Single Sex Public Education has got it all wrong. Whether a person learns best with theory or practical applications, or whether they learn best with numbers or visualizing, it is because of that person's personality, not because of one's gender.

Vivian Mac
Vivian Mac

There's nothing wrong with an all-woman's school (there are a lot of positive aspects to it), but I have a problem if people use gender stereotypes to justify it.

Forced School
Forced School

Asst. US Attorney General Zachariah Montgomery wrote this in 1886:

""As long as we make our chief fight on the question of Bible or no Bible, religion or no religion, division of public-school funds or no division, mixed or separate schools for girls and boys, and similar questions concerning which men will differ and as things are, naturally and honestly differ so long will there be contention and strife amongst the real friends of  educational reform."

He saw this as the main issue in education:

"Shall the parent or the political State determine for a child who shall be its teacher, its companions, and what books it shall or shall not study? Let all other issues be made subordinate to this."

Unfortunately, we now know the answer is the State.


Why not I dunno come up with some stats on how they compare? Who does better all things being equal? See if single sex environments do foster better learning, and social development.  Or say combine specific classes such as history/social studies.  Honestly if it was so bad I doubt the uber expensive schools that do it would have lasted.  (Not taking into account say better teachers or facilities; which yes leaves a lot of wiggle room.)  

And if people are going to be up in arms over public money for sex segregated schools. Offer a teacher or two that teach non segregated classes at parents request or give them the opportunity to go to a non segregated school.  

I'd like to know what parent is actually up in arms over this, that hasn't figured out that option.  (It's not as if they're really pounding 50's gender roles into them.) And there are numerous studies showing the differences in development, and learning has catered to a style better for girls since title 9, and "boy behavior" has become less acceptable, and punished more severely as well. (More women now go to college than men, and get better grades overall)

But really why not compare, and see who performs better (Assuming there is really a difference) 

Megan Murphy
Megan Murphy

While critics suggest that single-sex educations reinforce stereotypes,

no such data is provided, just as it was not provided in the Science article

referenced above. The central value of

single-sex schools is freedom from, not reinforcement of, gender

stereotypes. When you combine strong female mentors, reduced sex

stereotyping in curriculum and classroom, and abundant learning

opportunities the results are clear. Cornelius Riordan, Professor of

Sociology at Providence College and author of Girls and Boys in School:

Together or Separate? sums it up: “Females especially do better

academically in single-sex schools and colleges across a variety of

cultures. Having conducted research on single-sex and coeducational

schools for the past two decades, I have concluded that single-sex

schools help to improve student achievement.” The US Department of Education’s comprehensive summary of research on

single-sex vis a vis coeducation concludes: “The preponderance of

studies in areas of academic accomplishment ... and adaptation or

socioemotional development...yields results lending support to SS

(single sex) schooling.”



I have read studies that gender separated teaching is more effective. To claim that this is discrimination against both with out even giving one reason why shows how pathetic this biased article is.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

I will be the first to admit that I have no statistics to back up my viewpoint, but, in my own experience, I have found it easier to teach groups separated by gender. There are fewer disciplne problems, the students are more attentive, and there is more verbal participation. The difference is quite noticeable.


All social sciences and psychological sciences should be classified as pseudo sciences. There are just too many factors involved in human behaviour to accurately study. That`s why good ol common sense is the best way to go. Segragation of sexes is logical. The two sexes are different and only political blindness can keep someone from seeing that. So long as it is demonstrated to produce equal chances for both genders, segregated education should be left alone. Let the parents decide what`s best for their children. This is a serious overreach by the ACLU.