Single-sex school movement bumps up against Title IX

by Sarah Betts | 10/23/02 5:00am

Title IX's implications for single-sex public education are causing heated debate, as its restrictions on publicly funded single-sex schools and classrooms stand in the way of new education reform.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, a project of the Bush administration, provides more latitude for alternative education methods and would make it easier for single-sex schools to exist.

In order to resolve the two conflicting laws, the Department of Education published its intent to propose amendments to Title IX regulations in May, 2002. These amendments would provide "more flexibility for educators to establish single-sex classes and schools at the elementary and secondary levels," according to a statement by the Department of Education published in the Federal Register.

The notice invited comments, and the issue has polarized those involved in education policy. Also, the prospect of more permissive legislation has led to the opening of more single sex schools around the country.

If the legislation on single-sex schools changes, Dr. Leonard Sax of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education expects there to be an increase of single-sex public school programs. "We know of schools from all backgrounds that want to do this, that are just waiting," Sax said.

The nation currently has many single-sex public schools which exist mostly in violation of Title IX, such as the Young Women's Leadership Academy in New York and Paducah Middle School in Kentucky. Paducah moved this year to single sex classes for 6th-8th graders, despite Title IX's current prohibition, and other schools are following suit.

Audrey Lawson began the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity prep academy in Houston, TX this year for inner city boys, who she feared were getting a "bad rap." The school, taught by all male teachers, presently comprises grades six through eight and aims to provide the boys with successful male role models.

"Most of these boys come out of single parent families, and they need to learn to be a man," she said.

When Lawson began the academy, she was not aware that there were restrictions on single-sex public schools. Her concern, she said, was to provide the boys with a better educational environment.

While some believe that singe-sex schools such as WALIPP offer an antidote to foundering public schools, others view altering Title IX regulations as a threat to gender equality in education.

The National Education Association, a major powerhouse in education policy, supports preserving the current Title IX regulations as they stand.

The current regulations, NEA staff attorney Cynthia Chmielewski said, have worked "exceptionally well," and there must be compelling reasons to change them, which the NEA does not believe single-sex schools provide.

She fears that the Bush administration's proposals could divert funds from more legitimate improvements and "elevate the doctrine of separate but equal."

"You would be legitimizing harmful stereotypes," Chmielewski said.

Sax does not view single-sex education as a return to gender-specific roles. "No one wants to go back to the days when there was woodcutting for boys and home economics for girls," Sax said.

Single-sex schools actually enable students to break out of stereotypes, Sax said, because social pressures are eased. This helps students feel comfortable participating in activities that might otherwise be considered "uncool."

Lawson agrees that coed schools enforce stereotypes, both for boys and girls. A common argument for single-sex schools claims that girls feel more comfortable when removed from traditionally male-dominated classes, but Lawson said she has found that for inner city students, the opposite is often true.

"Inner city boys started out not being thought of as good students," Lawson said. "In elementary school, they have had mostly women teachers, and girls respond better to them."

The boys at WALIPP like the new environment, Lawson said. "They say, 'at least we don't have to act out for the girls,'" she said.

Despite the possibility of such benefits, Nancy Zirkin, Deputy Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said there is no reason to believe that single sex schools are a cure-all for public education's woes.

"Single-sex education is not a silver bullet," Zirkin said. "It is a diversion from the main element. The way to improve public education is with qualified teachers and small classrooms, not to go experimenting with single-sex classes or charter schools."

Not all believe that so broad an approach can be effective. According to Sax, education must be improved in a gender specific way because, he said, it is a scientific fact that boys and girls learn through radically different methods. He noted that girls hear twice as well as boys, for example.

"So if you are teaching boys, you have to speak up, but if you talk to girls at that level they think you are shouting at them," Sax said.

The lawfulness of single-sex education remains uncertain. "We would never accept segregation by race, so why by sex?" Zirkin said.

This is a question that will continue whether or not Title IX is amended.