Title IX and single-sex education

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Other Title IX changes: When you think "Title IX," you think women's sports. But the imbroglio over changes to the law involves much more.

The Bush administration is also pondering adjustments to the federal role in single-sex education, a change that could permit public schools to set up entire single-gender schools or individual single-sex classes.

The National Women's Law Center (nwlc.org) worries changes soon to be released by the administration "would allow public schools to deny students admission to schools and classes based on gender, without legal safeguards that help ensure that sex segregation does not reinforce stereotypes or perpetuate discrimination." Given the administration's track record on women's rights, the supposition isn't unjustified. But let's hope experience and a bit of apolitical rationale intervene to push the pendulum closer to the middle.

The argument typically goes something like this: Boys are in trouble, particularly lower-income and minority boys. These boys fare better in single-sex environments. So let's allow public schools to set up programs and academies designed to bolster their achievement levels. Women's-rights groups fear Taliban-like sex-segregated societies where girl students are shepherded back to educational enslavement.

Several points. First, single-sex education is already thriving in some sectors without federal endorsement. The Michigan legislature is about to approve single-sex education in Detroit public schools, as long as comparable institutions are available for girls and for boys.

Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, wrote last year in Education Week, "Five years ago, fewer than a dozen public schools in this country offered any kind of single-sex educational options. Today, at least 156 public schools offer single-sex classrooms, with many more planning to offer that format for the 2005-06 academic year. That's more than a tenfold increase in just five years."

Although he advocates for certain forms of single-sex education in public schools, Sax (an M.D. and a Ph.D. in psychology) also notes it's no panacea: "Not all schools achieve good results when they venture into single-sex education. Newport Middle School in Newport, Ky., and Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, abandoned single-sex classrooms after just one year. In each case, there was no significant improvement in grades or test scores; at Newport Middle School, discipline referrals for the boys soared."

Methinks there is a happy medium to be found here. Why not let public schools experiment with single-sex education, at least at the classroom level, and pull from the experience that which helps the majority of boys and girls? Boys seem to need help in reading and language. They are clearly more hyperactive than girls at young ages. But girls need encouragement in science, math, and computer skills.

Most experts (as opposed to ideological activists) agree that where single-sex education succeeds, it is usually due more to high-quality teaching than to gender division. If all public schools introduce smaller classes and demand academic rigor, then students of both genders fare better.