Sex-Segregated Public Education Reinforces Harmful Gender and Racial Stereotypes

By Claire Throckmorton, WLP Legal Intern

In 2010, the Pittsburgh Public School Board voted to separate one of its lowest performing schools, Westinghouse High School, into two single-sex academies. The decision to gender-segregate Westinghouse High School was largely influenced by false notions that boys and girls are so innately different that they must be taught separately using distinct teaching methods. Luckily this sex-segregated experiment ended in November 2011 through the joint efforts of the Women’s Law Project, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

So what is driving some schools to opt for single-sex educational models?  Proponents of single-sex education argue that separating the sexes will enhance students’ academic achievement by eliminating the “distraction” from the other sex and utilizing teaching methods which address boys and girls’ “innately different” learning styles. In 2006, changes to the U.S. Department of Education’s regulations, motivated by the No Child Left Behind Act, eroded legal impediments to single-sex public education. Since these changes, an estimated 500 to 1,000 public schools across the country offered single-sex education in 2012, compared with only 12 in 2002. These single-sex public schools are arising as an effort to combat low state testing scores in school districts with predominantly low-income students of color.

In light of the dramatic increase of sex-segregated public schools in the United States, Associate Professor Sara Goodkind at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, and fellow university researchers, interviewed students, teachers, and parents at Westinghouse High School to analyze whether sex-segregating the high school had the desired effect.  Their findings were published in a recent article entitled, Providing new opportunities or reinforcing old stereotypes? Perceptions and experiences of single-sex public education.*  Instead of reducing “distractions” among the sexes, Goodkind found that segregating boys and girls served to heighten sexual harassment of girls in between classes and reinforce notions of gender essentialism. According to Goodkind, the assumption that sex-segregation will reduce the students’ distractions from schoolwork is not only problematically heteronormative, but also minimizes the students’ true distractions in the classroom. As one teacher noted, “I mean, our kids get shot…Our kids get raped. Our kids are homeless. Our kids are victims of abuse.” Sex-segregation serves only to ignore the true issues students at Westinghouse, and those similarly situated, are facing.

Sex-segregation also serves to reinforce racialized stereotypes of hypersexuality and gender. Students explained that Westinghouse was a “Black school,” therefore the administration thought that the girls were loud, crazy, and “try to be all up on the boys.” One teacher noticed gender stereotypes being reinforced when the school decided to take only the girls to see The Scarlet Letter. The teacher noted, “That’s a little gender-biased there, you know, they felt as though they should warn the girls not be sluts?”

There is no solid empirical proof that single-sex education has any academic benefits. Furthermore, it actually reinforces inaccurate gender stereotypes and further marginalizes queer, transgender, and intersex students. As Goodkind notes, “Separating students by sex as a solution to low academic achievement diverts attention from systematic problems of poverty and racism and leaves structural inequality intact.”

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