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Education Department Outlines Ground Rules for Single Sex Education

Schools that want to offer single-sex classes need to have a good, educational reason for doing so—and they need to give parents a chance to "opt-in"  to the single-sex model and offer a similar co-ed option on the same subject, according to guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights Monday.

Schools that want to offer same-sex classes must steer clear of gender stereotypes, and avoid considering sex when selecting faculty members to lead these classes. They also must conduct regular reviews of the classes to make sure that they are complying with Title IX regulations, which seek to prohibit sex discrimination. They also have to make a clear case that offering a single sex class will lead to increases in student achievement.

Also, the guidance requires schools to treat transgender students in a manner consistent with their chosen gender identity.

Importantly, the guidance doesn't apply to public single-sex schools. (There are other regulations for that.)

The guidance marks the first time that OCR has weighed in on single-sex schooling since 2006.

"As we receive increasing inquiries about single-sex offerings, we want to be clear what federal law allows: Protect civil rights and promote achievement," said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, in a statement.

The guidance would seem to address concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has questioned the reasoning behind single-sex classes in states including Alabama, Maine, Mississippi, Virginia, and West Virginia.

At first glance, the guidance would seem to make it tougher for some schools to offer single-sex classes, particularly given the requirement that there must also be a separate, co-educational version of the class. That could make it especially tough for some rural schools with relatively small student populations or lean budgets to offer single-sex classes, like this South Carolina school Edweek wrote about in 2008.

So does single-sex education actually work? My colleague Sarah Sparks unpacked the promise and (mostly) pitfalls of the practice back in this smart story. There has been much advocacy but very little evidence that an all-boys or all-girls class boosts performance more than a comparable mixed class, and some studies suggest keeping boys and girls segregated can lead to other behavior issues. 

What's with all the OCR activity these days? The Education Department has released guidance on everything from transgender students in other educational settings to ensuring school districts distribute teachers and instructional materials fairly between high-poverty schools and those that serve wealthier students.

One possible explanation: The Education Department—which is virtually out of competitive grant money and has gotten major pushback for initiatives including its No Child Left Behind waivers—seems to have turned to civil rights guidance as a key lever to influence district and state practice.

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