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Single-Sex Classrooms: Coming Soon to Your Local Public School

Are single-sex classrooms a step backward or a wise return to tradition?
single sex classrooms

All-girls or all-boys schools may conjure up visions of prep school boys in "Dead Poets Society" or (if you are a little older) the proper, uniform-clad girls in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." (This is one of Maggie Smith's greatest roles as the sexy school marm.) In both films the message is clear: single-sex schools are for the rich, the privileged. They seem quaint, old-fashioned. Retro.

Yet due to recent changes to Title IX (the 1972 law that among other things leveled the playing field for women's athletics), single-sex classrooms may be coming to your local, coeducational public school. For free.

Background
In 1972, Title IX of the U.S. Education Act guaranteed that no educational institution receiving federal funds could discriminate on the basis of sex. But that was not always the case. For over 300 years, many U.S. schools and universities excluded women. For example, Harvard -- when it opened its ivy-covered doors in 1636 -- was boys only.

In colonial times, elementary schools were also segregated by sex, and the boys schools always got the better resources (books, heat, etc.). Girls -- when they were educated (which was rare) -- got the schools in the evenings or the summer or were educated by their mothers at home, mainly in the domestic arts. For a long time single-sex schools were viewed as the proper places to prepare girls and boys for their very different future roles in society.

It was not until the 1970s -- in part prompted by Title IX -- that Harvard, along with other Ivies, admitted women. Over the next couple of decades, the changing times and economic necessity saw many traditionally single-sex schools (both private and Catholic) open their doors to the opposite sex. By 1996, the death knell for single-sex schools seemed to be rung when the venerable Virginia Military Institute was forced by the Supreme Court to admit women. It seemed that single-sex education in the U.S. was dead: a relic of the past.

Or was it?

Changes to Title IX made by the Bush administration in October 2006 now make it easier for public schools to experiment with all-girl and all-boy classes. While proponents see this as an opportunity to offer more choices to public school students, others see it as a return to gender-segregated spheres for men and women.

What Does the Research Say?
Any parent considering placing their child in a public, single-sex school or class needs to know that the research in this area is limited and inconclusive.

There is a small body of research on Catholic or private schools from the 1980s and 1990s that notes some benefits to girls attending single-sex schools. These studies found that students who attended all-girls schools had less stereotypical sex-role attitudes, and were more likely to major in traditionally male fields such as math, science, or engineering.

Other studies, however, found that single-sex schools -- especially all-boys schools -- ran the danger of reinforcing traditional gender roles or sexist attitudes.

There are only a handful of studies on public, single-sex schools, mainly because the schools just haven't been around long enough. But studies are underway.

So, what's a parent to do if their local public school suddenly implements single-sex classes or becomes a single-sex school? Ask questions.

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