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.

(MORE: Can Parents Take Over Schools?)

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.

(MORE: Are Scout Handbooks Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes?)

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.

MORE: Reboot the School 


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.

Brian Hall
Brian Hall

What about an all man's school? 


like Barbara said I'm taken by surprise that some one can earn $6688 in a few weeks on the internet. did you see this web site (Click on menu Home more information)   http://goo.gl/Y3jUQ    

Jardin J
Jardin J

Did you seriously just post an argument for "separate but equal"? Your moniker should be: grace1960

If you separate the children by gender they will be missing out on some of the more useful lessons you learn in school, like how to adapt in social situations and working with people who think differently from you. 

This very simplistic division by gender isn't even realistic. We all know there are different learning styles, but to suppose that all girls fall into one category and boys into another is foolish, and will create more dysfunctions within the classroom.


 Um, no.  Social sciences may have factors that prevent them from being as clear-cut as the natural sciences, but they're not pseudo-science.  Studies done in any of the social sciences should employ the scientific method rigorously.  It seems to be currently popular for the public to misinterpret psychology, etc., in order to fit pre-determined points of view, but that's a fault of ignorant people, not of the social sciences.

Segregation of the sexes is not logical if your goal is an egletarian society that rewards students based on merit rather than holding them back on the basis of sex.  Your argument is exactly the same as the arguments that would have been made only a short time ago to promote racially-segregated education.  This has nothing to do with parental choice, it has everything to do with forcing government-operated schools to operate in the manner best suited to providing children with quality education, equal opportunities, and tools to function in society.


It's not that the "two sexes" aren't "different"; it's that everybody is. What this kind of segregation reifies and reinforces is that people are in some essential way intra-sexually the same and inter-sexually opposite. In other words, that there are concrete groups ("boys" and "girls") that are internally consistent and uniform (and the acceptance of such a norm perpetuates the stereotyping of people based on gender that causes people to conform (thereby reifying the idea) or else feel completely alienated) and which are completely at odds. Gender is much more performance than it is pure chromosomal sex, and the more that stereotypes are reified and expectations reinforced, the more it is allowed to become a source of internal consternation and external inequality. 

Basically, here' the essential problem with single-sex education: what happens when they get the gender wrong? In other words, what happens when a chromosomally male child (i.e. one with a penis, etc.) identifies as a "girl"? Do we put her in the girls' class where she will be ostracized for looking different, or do we put her in the boys' class, where she will be ostracized for acting different?


 I can name 10 differences between this situation and the racial segregation of the 60s just off the top of my head.

1. Racial segregation had to do with preventing certain parents from choosing the education they thought was best for their children, this is about giving parents the choice

2. Racial segregation was aimed at keeping a poor and powerless minority from intermingling with the rich white folk. In this case, women are as numerous as men. The same parents will give birth to both girls and boys. It`s not about rich families wanting their kids to be seperated from poor families.

3. Racial segregation was based on completely fabricated differences between the races. Gender is an real, obvious differences that no one can reasonably deny.

4. Racial segregation had an obvious power agenda. Gender segregation is not nearly so obvious. You go ahead and try to prove that those promoting gender segregation have some nefarious agenda, I`d love to see your proof.

5. Gender segregation is used in many of the best schools in the country and is proven to work very well. There is no evidence that it negatively affects either gender.

6. Racial segregation came from a background of racism and the desire to supress the blacks. Gender segregation is over all aimed at bringing out the best in both genders.

7. Gender segregation has many social benefits in kids and is actually good for their self-esteem. They don`t have the pressure to impress the opposite gender; meaning much less bullying. It`s been demonstrated that boys are less likely to try to «act manly» and girls will feel more comfortable to speak their minds and assert themselves in class.

«In mixed classrooms, boys often avoid tasks related to the arts while

girls shy away from science and technology. However, in single-sex

environments, there is no existing bias that “this is for boys” or “that

is for girls.” In fact, a 2005 study released by Cambridge University

showed that in single-sex rooms, as compared to traditional settings,

girls are more interested in math and science while boys score higher on

language tasks( The "Gender Gap in Education" study is part of

Cambridge's "Geographies of Gender" research program).»Read more at Suite101: Single-Sex Classrooms: Should Girls and Boys Have Separate Schools? | Suite101.com http://suite101.com/article/si...

8.  Racial segregation was a long and failed experiment. Gender segregation still has to be studied more before we start drawing conclusions on its value.

9. Students of both genders who study in segregated classrooms genereally both prefer it. In the case of racial segregation, it was the whites who imposed it on the blacks.

«At the 49ers Academy, in East Palo Alto, California, it was the students who gave the thumbs down to going coed.

"They say they feel more comfortable in sex-segregated classrooms,"

says Heather Turoczi, the school's program director. "The boys don't

feel like they need to put on a big show for the girls, and the girls

feel like they can strive academically without having to dumb down their


10. Gender segregation actually helps the poorer classes, since it helps girls stay in school by lowering the teenage pregnancy rate, as this study has shown http://www.edutopia.org/gender...

All of this is much more solid than the speculative and tenuous argument that somehow letting parents choose is going to destroy equality. Maybe the key to equality is focussing on building up both genders in isolation from one another. How will we know if we outlaw it before the results are in.


Ideology is not necessarily a bad thing, but when it leads to preventing potentially valuable practices before their merits can be properly evaluated, it is against real progress. See my respons to Jardin J


The only thing «rigorous scientific method» means in these sciences is that other people examine the findings and approve the quality of the data. But when you get down to it, these peer reviewers are still human, still have their ideological biases determining how they want to see human beings, and this colors their findings and their analysis.

Like you, many scientists have a priori goals behind their research. (In your case, your desire for you`re idea of an egalitarian society) Take Alfred Kinsey for example. You`re not going to tell me that he was uninterested in his research; though he did use the scientific method - as a way to advance his agenda. That`s all the scientifique method is in this context: a PR tool to make your agenda based opinion look like irrefutable fact.

This is a case that is far different from racial segragation. No one is trying to impose segregated education. It is an option parent`s can choose if they think it is best. There are still plenty of combined schools that parents can choose. It is premature to cry doomsday about the speculated results of giving parents this choice. Let the two options compete and see who does better in the long run. If my study of law has taught me one thing, it`s that things are very rarely as they seem.

Jardin J
Jardin J

I will agree with you on one point- there is not enough statistical data one way or another. 

Also, the education system is broken so any new ideas are better than nothing, because at least we are acknowledging the need for solutions.

I just see this causing more problems than it will solve.


 1) No, I didn't say social sciences don't produce hard facts.  I said that social sciences have factors that keep them from being as clear-cut as the natural sciences.  However, I'm uncertain why you jumped to the topic of social sciences in response to my statement that schools should teach children facts; it's my understanding that over the course of a standard childhood education a wide variety of topics are covered, including mathematics, biology, and so on. 

2) It amuses me that you're demanding evidence after previously rejecting science as biased by "a priori" goals and asserting that pure logic is the best way to run things. ;)  In any case, it's clearly obvious if you take a look at the history of education that segregation has been the norm for a long time, and has only recently shifted towards integration.  The first colleges to accept blacks were black-only.  The first colleges to accept women were female-only.  The move towards social equality has always been accompanied by integrating social activities, employment opportunities, and education.

The current gender stereotypes at play are not at all healthy.  They won't be overcome, however, by reinforcing the idea that boys and girls belong in separate spheres.  We need to show that people differ on an individual basis, rather than lumping them into different teams.


1) school should teach children facts:  And what «facts» would those be? You have already admitted that social sciences don`t produce hard facts but are simply «the best we have». That a hypothesis is the best we have doesn`t turn it into a fact.

2) teach children to interact in a mixed adult environment: your reasoning is quite short-sighted. You have absolutely no evidence to suggest that gender segregation in education keeps people from developping healthy attitutes towards the opposite sex. You cite one study which was clearly biased from the beginning. There

are a host of ways to prevent that kind of group-think mentality, like

by having set days of interaction with the other gender, as well as

teaching them to appreciate the other groups, that obvsiously were not

tried. Are you proposing that the gender attitudes currently at play in most public schools - where girls are under enormous pressure to be sexy, and boys to be macho - is healthy?


 Segregation of various forms has been the norm for much of history, and it always creates division.  I think it's time to give equality a try.  To quote from the study linked in the article: "The social scientists noted that research shows that children exposed to

environments where individuals are labeled and segregated along some

characteristic -- gender, eye color, or randomly assigned t-shirt groups

-- infer that the groups differ in important ways and develop biases in

their individual groups."  School is an environment that should 1) teach children facts, and 2) teach them to interact with each other in ways that will prepare them for entering society as adults.  Separating them by gender is definitely not going to do number 2, and the evidence indicates that it's not going to help with number 1 either.


 Peer review is the best method we've found yet for determining the reliability of studies.  Yes, scientists are still human, but at least there is a process in place that attempts to reduce the margin of human error and bias as much as possible.  All you are asserting is that people make errors and so every opinion is equal (it's not), and that parents effectively own their children.

Examples of biased scientists or scientists with flawed methodologies prove that we need to be careful.  As you said, people make errors. ;)  The scientific method is still the way we've come to understand pretty much everything we know about the universe we inhabit.  I've yet to hear you offer a suitable alternative.

If the goal of an egletarian society where everyone has a chance is a biased goal, it's a bias I'm happy to have and proud to admit to.  If you think that's an agenda that should be fought against, you're advocating discrimination.

This is a case that is exactly the same as racial segregation, just on a different scale.  People used to argue that differences between races merited separate education; sound familiar?  Parents still have a right to choose how to educate their kids; they can put them in private schools or home school them.  Government facilities do not exist to give equal voice to all ideologies, they exist to provide solid education based on facts.  In this case, the facts happen to be against you.

If my study of human nature has shown me anything, it's that posturing about one's credibility is rarely beneficial; it's much better to rely on the strength of one's argument. ;)