Published:  12:00 AM, 20 December 2016

Gender-based classrooms aren't the best answer

New research suggests segregating boys and girls in separate classrooms is not only a bad idea, but it could send mixed messages to your impressionable children.  Michael Kimmel is distinguished professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University and he explores the notion that segregating students by gender promotes more successful and engaging learning environments.

One of the first points Kimmel makes is that gender is a sliding scale and behaviors that society typically labels as feminine or masculine are routinely exhibited by the opposite sex. For instance, think about the girl who's athletic and perhaps thought of as a tomboy on the soccer field and then arrives home only to debate what dress she'll wear to the school dance that evening. Or, what about the male athlete who sings in the school's a cappella group, draws like Picasso and then plays lacrosse like a warrior? The point is, every student whether male or female exists on a gender spectrum. Most parents recognize some elements of these traits in their children. And while this is fairly easy for outsiders to recognize, some states have mandatory segregation of classrooms by gender.

Until recently, if you live in Wood County, West Virginia, your children would automatically be separated by gender. However, recently, under a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union and its local affiliates, the Wood County Board of Education agreed to abandon for two school years its program of separating boys and girls into single-sex classes. The ACLU had filed a lawsuit on behalf of a mother and her daughters who claimed the sex segregation was a form of sex discrimination against girls.

This little-noted legal settlement gives all of us -- parents, teachers, administrators, and kids themselves -- something to think about: Are single-sex classes really an effective way to educate our children? Historically, of course, single-sex schools -- especially private schools and colleges -- were the norm. But since the dawn of the 20th century, both educators and parents have seen them as historic anachronisms, especially for boys. Single-sex schools for girls may have challenged stereotypes, but single-sex schools for boys reproduced them, fostering what David Riesman and Christopher Jencks, in their monumental midcentury study, "The Academic Revolution," called "male arrogance."

Today, single-sex schools may provide some benefits, though these tend to be benefits that accompany the economic privilege of the families that can afford them. (That is, single sex private schools tend to also be schools for the elite.) But single-sex classes, in otherwise coeducational public schools, are entirely misguided.

In recent years, single-sex classes in public schools have become increasingly popular as a low-cost remedy for two issues that plague our country's public school system: the efforts to encourage girls' ambitions in traditionally "masculine" arenas such as science, technology, engineering and math, and to address the "boy crisis" in schools, the chronic underachievement of boys, especially in traditionally "feminine" subjects such as English. It's a popular theory. After Title IX regulations changed in 2006, more than 1,000 public schools segregated at least some of their classes by sex, a 2010 Feminist Majority report said. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education states a lower number - it says 500 U.S. public schools "offered single-sex educational opportunities" for the 2011-12 school year. Regardless, the theory is wrong. In fact, single-sex classes might do more harm than good.

 Michael Kimmel is a distinguished professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University.

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