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April 1, 2004

Lecturer Questions Legality, Results of Single sex Education

Recent efforts by the Bush administration to promote single-sex education in public schools are not only legally problematic, they also should be met with skepticism regarding the actual results, a law professor said here recently.

“As a black feminist I understand the need for a stable educational environment for students of color, both male and female,” said Verna L. Williams, professor of law at the University of Cincinnati School of Law. “As an advocate for educational equity, I understand the need for creative measures to address the failing public schools. But I find the focus on single-sex education a bit unsettling.”

Williams lectured here March 19 on “Single-Sex Education: Reform or Retrenchment,” as part of a two-day conference on Title IX and gender equity in education. (See related stories on page 4.)

An obscure provision in the No Child Left Behind Act is the premise for waiving Title IX protections in public schools in the interest of “helping” boys or girls, Williams said.

Using this provision, the Bush administration has pushed single-sex education in inner-city public schools by allowing school districts the “funding flexibility” to offer single-sex classes if they also provide “comparable” classes — though not necessarily sex-segregated classes — for the other gender, Williams said.

“Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, Bush II is giving us not ‘separate but equal,’ but ‘separate but comparable.’ I suppose that’s progress,” she said ironically.

“The emphasis on single-sex education must be viewed with great skepticism based on the history of racial and sex-based segregation in the past,” she said. “[This requires] an intersectional analysis — at a minimum to look at how race and sex interact.”

(She said that other factors, economic class and sexual orientation among them, also should be considered, but that she would stick to race and gender in her discussion.)

“Such an intersectional analysis is necessary to view whether single-sex education perpetuates the negative construction of masculinity and femininity for African-American students,” Williams said. “Do the proposed reforms merely retrench those stereotypes?”

In looking at existing single-sex schools that serve minority students, Williams said, “such schools benefit black boys, it is said, because they can provide male role models to teach them how to become men, how to provide for families, and as a way to compensate for the proliferation of female heads of households, which, the argument goes, facilitate the demise of black males.

“For black girls, it is argued, single-sex education is effective because it prevents pregnancy and slows these girls’ entry into sexual activity,” Williams said.

For white females, in contrast, the argument for sex segregation is that it allows them to see themselves as more competent and more willing to advance in math and science.

“So for blacks: it’s a safety focus, primarily,” bolstering the stereotype of black males as incompetent, as well as predatory and dangerous. “Removing them therefore improves safety. And girls are safe because there are no boys around. What does that teach them about black males?”

As an example, in California, “the first state to experiment widely with single-sex education [in public schools], former Gov. Pete Wilson’s stated goal was to help African-American boys and low-income Latinos,” Williams said. “The emphases in this experiment were discipline for the boys and curriculum opportunities for the girls.”

Boys were faced with a prison-like environment, a regimented academic boot camp, where some even took pride in forcing officials to inflict extra discipline, Williams said.

“Boys thought if they were disciplined, ‘I’m the man!’” she said. “The hyper-masculinized environment also increased harassment, misogyny and homophobia.”

Instead, single-sex schools should challenge these views by asking what is masculinity and femininity, she said. “Girls were reading ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ while boys read ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ Why? Because girls like romance, and guys like action.”

Despite the rhetoric justifying sex segregation, there was little emphasis on improving educational opportunities in these experimental schools. There were no AP courses, for example, she said. “Some researchers concluded that these schools actually create a new low-opportunity educational track,” Williams said.

If the goal of single-sex education is to promote scholarship, Williams might be less skeptical. “My concern is not that, it’s the assumption that we must segregate students on the basis of sex so they can conceive themselves as scholars,” she said. “Why can’t girls conceive themselves as scholars when the boys are around?”

Further, she said that premise is, in effect, an abdication by teachers and the entire public school system.

“An argument could be made that year after year girls are not getting the same treatment by teachers,” Williams said. “Why don’t we evaluate what’s going on? Why aren’t we training teachers not to favor boys, instead of taking school districts off the hook by separating sexes?”

Williams said most of the 12 indicators for a successful school have nothing to do with gender: academic focus; whether the kids choose to go to that school; whether their parents want them to go there; small classes; high teacher expectations.

“We don’t know that single-sex education works by isolating sex as a factor,” she said.

Williams said a better course of action would be to put more resources into existing schools. “The courts have said: ‘Money matters, it’s connected to outcomes.’ Why don’t we deal with that, instead of having a boys academy and saying it will be like Exeter when it won’t?

“Today, no one is arguing that we have to protect precious and delicate and fragile young white women from over-sexed black men, right? Probably not.

“But history makes us ask the question: Is this really reform or the same old tired racism wrapped up in a different package? We have every right to be skeptical, to demand better education so no child is left behind for real and there is an equal educational opportunity for all.”

—Peter Hart

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