Boys will be boys and girls will be girls.
Or so say the growing number of American public schools who implement single-sex education.
Based on the belief that boys and girls learn differently, the single-sex education method separates children into all-male and all-female classes with the goal of heightening their learning experience.
Although the notion is nothing new — a look back in history shows centuries of sex-based educational segregation — the model is rapidly becoming a popular trend. According to a recent New York Times article, the number of schools with same-sex classrooms has risen from two to 49 since 1995. This steep incline can be attributed to two recent legislative changes: a 2002 overturn of the 1972 law that made coeducation mandatory in public schools, and a No Child Left Behind-related action in 2006 in which the Department of Education changed Title IX regulations to make single-sex education more feasible.
The pros and cons of the model are multifarious. Questions arise as to how well children will be able to socialize with one another outside of school, or work with the opposite sex when they are older. For each doubtful question they receive, advocates of single-sex education cite benefits that range from higher academic performance to keeping the kids focused (surely many of us can remember being significantly distracted by a member of the opposite sex?). The agenda is not lacking in research or purpose, and single-sex education undoubtedly does work well for many children. But what happens when a child isn’t exactly boy or girl? The division of children by their sex, into either a “boy class” or a “girl class,” disregards those whose sex may not fit easily into either category. Take an intersexed child, for example. According to the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), one in 100 births are babies “whose bodies differ from standardized male or female” anatomy. A lot of progress has been made to make these sexualities acceptable and accommodated for in American society, and in this respect single-sex education becomes a form of sexual discrimination.
The discriminatory nature of forcing children into the categories of “boy” or “girl” is case enough to end it. The system does not only discriminate against children with intersex anatomy, but also creates an array of problematic gender misconceptions. Human rights and GLBT activists have gone to great lengths to make American society understand the difference between biological sex and gender. The two do not have to, and often do not, match perfectly. There are feminine and masculine elements within us all, and sometimes a person’s gender is quite different from their apparent sex. Just as sexuality is not black-and-white (or, rather, straight or gay), gender cannot be divided into two neat categories. Instead it should be seen as a broad spectrum.
Sex-based segregation in public schools proves that not everyone has been reached by these progressions in public consciousness. Mandated single-sex education perpetuates gender stereotypes, traditional gender roles and a gender binary. There is no room for anyone to move about the spectrum.
However, in light of the many shortcomings of public education, we can’t blame them for trying. So long as the system continues to fail children, educators and parents will try to find ways to solve this. Same-sex classrooms are one of the many, sometimes radical, remedies to a desperately ill education system. And like the variety of other band-aid programs, mono-sex education cannot single-handedly cure the disease.
The problem with single-sex education is not their fundamental claim that “boys and girls learn differently.” Of course they do — all children learn differently. Instead of concentrating on the “traditional” learning processes of boys and girls, educators should focus on catering to the individual, for each child’s capabilities are certainly different from the next. Ultimately, the implications of separation and the consequences of promoting a boy/girl binary far outweigh the handful of benefits.
The answer is not, and has never been, segregation.