ACLU of Michigan Warns School that Mandatory Sex Segregated Classrooms are Illegal, Discriminatory and Ineffective

October 08, 2009

DETROIT – After learning that fourth graders at Millside Elementary School in Algonac were involuntarily separated into two single gender classrooms, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sent a letter today warning that these sex segregated classrooms are illegal, discriminatory and ineffective.

"Separating our daughters from our sons is an ineffective response to a complex problem, and it doesn't prepare boys and girls for the real world,” said Jacquelin Washington, ACLU of Michigan president pro tem and a retired school social worker. “Segregation was wrong in the past and it’s certainly wrong now. Inevitably these experimental programs distract much needed time and money from efforts that we know work like smaller classes, highly trained teachers, sufficient funding and involved parents.”

In September, the ACLU learned that Millside Elementary had segregated its fourth grade class into single gender classrooms with no co-educational option for students hoping to opt out. In its six-page letter, the ACLU details both the legal and educational implications of sex segregated classrooms calling them “both unconstitutional and counterproductive.” The ACLU charges that mandatory sex segregation in public schools violates the equal protection guarantees of the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions, Title IX of the Education Amendments, the Michigan School Code and Michigan’s civil rights law.

"Mandatory sex segregation in public schools not only harms a student’s educational experience, it is also clearly against the law,” said Jessie Rossman, ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney. “Both state and federal laws prohibit this practice; in fact the Michigan School Code clearly states that a school cannot force a student to participate in a single-gender classroom. Yet, that is exactly what Millside is doing and it must be stopped immediately.”

A recent review of data by the U.S. Department of Education showed that there is no consistent evidence that segregating students by sex improves learning by either sex. In fact, other studies have found that sex segregated classrooms actually do more harm by reinforcing antiquated stereotypes and antagonistic feelings toward the opposite sex. Moreover, because men and women work together in the real world, single-gender education fails to prepare students for these interactions.

Notwithstanding these findings, some school districts are experimenting with sex-segregated programs. However, these experiments are usually based on questionable "brain science" theories that rest on outdated gender stereotypes and call on teachers to treat boys and girls radically differently.

For instance, Millside Elementary School’s decision to segregate their students was based in large part on the writings of Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist who has never conducted his own scientific research on segregated education and whose theories have been widely debunked by scientists and educators alike. Dr. Sax instructs teachers to smile at girls and look them in the eye, but he says teachers must never smile at or look boys in the eye. In addition, he says girls should never be given time limits on tests and should be encouraged to take their shoes off in class. Furthermore, Dr. Sax instructs teachers that boys can be spanked and that boys who like to read and who do not enjoy contact sports have a problem and should be forced to play sports and spend time with “normal males.”

“The truth is, all students learn differently, and these differences do not break down simply along gender lines,” wrote the ACLU. “The better solution is to give teachers the training and resources to reach students with a variety of learning styles, regardless of their gender. We therefore hope that you will change this illegal and ineffective policy, and reinstitute coeducational fourth grade classrooms, in order to ensure that Millside students reach their full potential.”

The ACLU of Michigan’s letter was signed by Ms. Rossman and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg.

To read the letter, click here.

To learn more about the detrimental effects of single gender classrooms, click here.

To read Jessie Rossman's blog on single gender classrooms, click here.

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