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Push from ACLU to End Same-Sex Classes in Several States

My colleague Sarah D. Sparks reported for Education Week in the May 9 print edition about the various social skills children acquire in coed classes. Among the other benefits, she cited Arizona State University professor Erin E. Pahlke's findings that "boys and girls in classes near sex parity had better self-control than those of either sex in a class in which they were the dominant majority."

As if to reinforce the findings from Pahlke and other researchers, the American Civil Liberties Union announced earlier this week that it was seeking to stop several states from "separating boys and girls in public schools," a practice that it says is "outdated" and based on "discredited science." Its effort includes sending cease-and-desist letters to school districts where it says the practice is taking place or has taken place recently in states including Alabama, Maine, Mississippi, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Casting a much wider net, the civil liberties group is seeking public records on the matter from states including Idaho, Massachusetts and Washington state. One of the main points the ACLU is making is that unless they programs meet certain requirements, such single-sex programs violate federal law. The group also claims that the practice of using same-sex classrooms still appears "widespread."

As outside evidence, the ACLU cites an article in Science magazine from 2011 that purports to debunk research from Dr. Leonard Sax, who argues in favor of same-sex education at the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education. (A quick summary of the Science piece is here, and The New York Times discussed the research here).

In a 2005 Commentary piece for Education Week that has the amusing subtitle of "Mr. Chips Meets Snoop Dogg," Sax cited successful examples of single-sex classrooms in one Seattle school district where discipline referrals dropped significantly and test scores jumped.

While he cautioned that the practice needed further research and refinement and should remain voluntary for the foreseeable future, Sax also wrote: "A curriculum that teaches the same subjects in the same sequence to girls and boys runs the risk of giving rise to 12-year-old girls who think they can't do geometry and that they will never be any good at geometry and 12-year-old boys who don't like to read or write."

Further supporting evidence on NASSPE's site relates to proficiency rates on the Florida FCAT (much in the news recently) of 37 percent for boys in coed classes and 86 percent for boys in single-sex classes.

ACLU takes its own whacks at Sax, highlighting with distaste what they say is Sax's recommendation that boys who don't enjoy contact sports and like to read should be "made to play sports" and spend more time with "normal males." Copies of ACLU's correspondence with states and school districts on the issue can be viewed here.

"Instead of implementing these gimmicky programs, schools should focus on strategies that work for all students," said Mie Lewis, an ACLU staff attorney, in a statement.

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