Statement: Reasons for Concern about Wake County's New Single-Sex Schools

A Statement from the NC Justice Center's Education & Law Project and the ACLU of North Carolina

As organizations that value diversity and equal opportunity in education, we are writing once again to express our concerns about the single-sex leadership academies that have opened in the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS). While we certainly agree that students in WCPSS benefit from a variety of learning opportunities, possibly including leadership academies, we have concerns that these academies are being organized as single-sex educational environments. Single-sex education is too often based on the unproven and widely discredited theory that boys and girls learn and develop so differently that they need to be taught separately—using different teaching techniques. This theory is based on harmful gender stereotypes that are repackaged as “science.” Around the country we have seen examples of this gender stereotyping in teacher training materials that suggest that boys should be shouted at and allowed to jump around in class, while girls should not be given timed tests because they do not perform well under stress.[1] In addition, proponents of single-sex education claim that boys are naturally better at math because of their testosterone levels, and that participation in sports by girls is “unrealistic” due to their biology.[2] We have attached a report recently released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that highlights concerning single-sex educational programs across the country. While there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, there is evidence demonstrating that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping, legitimizes institutional sexism,[3] and deprives all students of the opportunity to socialize, compete, and collaborate with students of the other sex at school.

The ACLU of North Carolina recently submitted a public records request related to WCPSS’ two single-sex academies. The ACLU received responsive documents demonstrating that the philosophy of the schools’ leadership and the research that contributed to the formation of the schools will undoubtedly lead to gender-specific teaching styles in the classrooms of the Wake Young Men’s and Young Women’s Leadership Academies. For example, the applications for each single-sex school to North Carolina’s Cooperative Innovative High School Program explicitly state that teaching methods will reflect the “current research on adolescent development with emphasis on the specific learning needs of young men”[4] and “young women.”[5] Additionally, a professional development workshop is proposed for academy teachers on the topic of “single gender,” titled “Maximizing Student Learning in Single Gender Settings.” This workshop will use “classroom walk-thrus,” to determine the need for single-gender instructional assistance and to establish targeted professional development on the topic.[6] What might be included in a “classroom walk-thru” is not described in any detail in the responsive documents, but generally walk-throughs include a quick five-minute walk through of the classroom by an administrator such as a principal to determine classroom needs. There is no evidence that walk-throughs are an effective or meaningful tool for determining classroom needs.

This focus on gender-differentiated teaching highlights our main concern with these single-sex academies: they assume not only that girls and boys cannot learn around one another, but also that they do not learn from one another. The philosophy that girls and boys do not benefit from alternative perspectives brought by the opposite sex is demonstrated by a recent quote from the Young Men’s Leadership Academy principal, Ian Solomon, who reportedly stated, “while female students might read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ . . . male students might read a similar book written from a male perspective.”[7] It is insulting to both males and females to suggest that boys are impervious to Anne Frank’s messages of tolerance and hope simply because these messages are not delivered “from a male perspective.”

Similarly, according to an article in Wake Forest–Rolesville High’s student newspaper, Forest Fire, which was received by the ACLU in response to our public records request, the principal for the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Teresa Pierrie, described the differences between girls and boys using gender stereotypes in an interview this spring. Principal Pierrie relies heavily on stereotypes when describing girls as requiring time to verbalize their insights, wanting to discuss extensively before, during, and after a class, adding that girls need to develop their powers of oral argument to make them purposeful and to develop the power of individual rather than collaborative engagement. Principal Pierrie described boys as needing more movement and room when they work, wanting to get to their work and get it finished, and needing physically engaging tasks in all disciplines, not just physical education or career and technical education courses.[8] Peirrie suggested that boys need to be taught to think through their work rather than merely rushing to finish it.[9] While she admits that these are generalities and that some boys will “thrive in the kind of environment I am describing for girls and some girls will thrive in the kind of environment suited for boys,” she does not explain how children who do not conform to the generalities will be accommodated.[10]

Such comments from the principals of the academies cause us a great deal of concern because they demonstrate the very real danger that single-sex education will, in fact, prevent girls and boys from receiving equal educational opportunities, deny students the perspectives brought about by gender diversity to the detriment of all students, and marginalize students who do not conform to gender stereotypes – for example, girls who have trouble sitting still[11] and boys who crave in-depth class discussion. One of the strengths of our public schools is the opportunity they provide for students of different sexes, races, religions, and of different political, cultural, and economic backgrounds to learn from each other.

Moreover, as we have described for the Board previously, separation of students on the basis of sex raises significant legal concerns and may violate the Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court found that stand alone, single-sex schools must be based on an “exceedingly persuasive justification,” and that the governmental entity operating such schools must show that the sex-based “classification serves important governmental objectives and that the discriminatory means employed are substantially related to the achievement of those objectives.”[12] Such a justification may not be based on “overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities or preferences” of young men and women[13]—like the stereotypes about boys’ and girls’ learning styles mentioned above.

There is considerable doubt as to whether any sound educational data currently exists that would support a finding that single-sex education is substantially related to improving educational outcomes–or any other important objective.[14] The comments from the principals of the Wake Academies, discussed above, are extremely concerning, from both a legal and an educational policy perspective. Therefore, we urge the Board to ensure that each student in WCPSS is educated based on that individual student’s educational needs, not based on gender stereotypes. The Board should refocus WCPSS’ limited resources on factors that have been proven to improve student achievement, like smaller class sizes, qualified teachers, parental involvement, and an emphasis on core academic subjects.

Best regards,

Christine Bischoff
Attorney, Education and Law Project
North Carolina Justice Center

Sarah Preston
Policy Director
ACLU-NC

Dennis Boos & Sue Woodling
Wake County Choices


[1] Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, 88-92, 179-83, 188 (2005).

[2] Michael Gurian, The Boys and Girls Learn Differently Action Guide for Teachers, 100 (2003).

[3] Halpern et al., Pseudoscience, supra, at 1706 (citing Mael 2005, supra); Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson, The Paradox of Single-Sex and Co-Educational Schooling (Univ. of Buckingham, 2006); Terri Thompson and Charles Ungerleider, Canadian Centre for Knowledge Mobilisation, Single Sex Schooling: Final Report (2004); Herbert Marsh and Kenneth Rowe, The Effects of Single-Sex and Mixed-Sex Mathematics Classes Within a Co-educational School: A Reanalysis and Comment, 40 Aust. J. Educ. 147 (1996); Richard Harker, Achievement, Gender and the Single-Sex/Coed Debate, 21 Br. J. Sociol. Educ. 203 (2000); Org. for Econ. Co-operation and Dev., Equally Prepared for Life? (2009); C. Kirabo Jackson, Single-sex schools, student achievement, and course selection: Evidence from rule-based student assignments in Trinidad and Tobago, 96 J. of Public Econ. 173 (2012).

[4] WYMLA Application at 12. (on file with the ACLU).

[5] WYWLA Application at 12. (on file with the ACLU).

[6] WYMLA Application, Appendix I; WYWLA Application, Appendix I. In addition, a workshop on “Understanding the Development and Function of the Adolescent Brain” is planned to “provide neuroscience education and instructional strategies tailored to adolescent brain development and function.” Id. (all documents on file with the ACLU).

[7] Keung Hui & Thomas Goldsmith, New single gender academies open in Wake, News & Observer, August 14, 2012, available at http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/08/13/2266677/new-single-sex-academies-....

[8] Interview with Teresa Pierrie, Principal of Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Wake Forest-Rolesville High School Forest Fire, student newspaper (undated) (on file with the ACLU).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Amy L. Katz. What Happens When You Teach Stereotypes Instead of Kids? ACLU Blog of Rights, August 15, 2012, available at http://www.aclu.org/blog/womens-rights/what-happens-when-you-teach-stere....

[12] U.S. v Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 523-24 (1996), quoting Mississippi Univ. of Women v. Hogan, 458 U.S. 718, at 724 (1982).

[13] Id. at 533.

[14] See U.S. Dept. of Ed., Single-Sex Versus Coeducational Schooling: A Systemic Review (2005) (finding that there is no clear evidence that students will do better in single-sex schooling); Diane F. Halpern et al., The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling, Science Magazine, Sep. 23, 2011, 1706-1707 (finding no scientific evidence to show that boys and girls learn differently or that single-sex education improves education outcomes). 

 

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