Giving Schools An Education In Sexism

by Tracy R. Walsh

Florida’s second-largest school district is under fire for giving teachers of single-sex classes pedagogical tips along the lines of “Girls are not as good at abstract thinking, so they should learn with the help of real-life connections.” Amanda Marcotte rolls her eyes:

The complaint quotes directly from the District’s Single Gender Education Legal and Educational Rationale Brief, and includes such gems as, “Boys tend to prefer non-fiction over fiction. Boys like to read descriptions of real events or illustrated accounts of the way things work, like spaceships, bombs, or volcanoes.” What about girls? “Story problems are a good way to teach algebra to girls. Putting the question in story format makes it easier for girls to understand, and more interesting as well,” the district brief says, adding, “With boys, you can stimulate their interest by focusing on the properties of numbers per se.”

Proponents of single-sex education may claim to be all about maximizing children’s potential, but this ACLU complaint suggests the opposite – that the real result is stifling any children who dare buck gender stereotypes. A girl who wants to be a computer programmer, a girl who’s a budding athlete, a boy who wants to write poetry, or a young man who wants to be a psychologist are all entering a classroom that is hostile to their talents and ambitions. Even if the ACLU of Florida can’t get the schools to stop, hopefully they can educate parents about the dangers of these kinds of classrooms and encourage them to yank their kids out.

Dana Liebelson considers the broader issue of single-sex education:

Gender-based educational programs are not unique to Florida. The ACLU has filed complaints against school districts in other states, including West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Idaho. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education, which supports these kinds of programs, notes, “We understand that some girls would rather play football rather than play with Barbies,” and “girls in single-sex educational settings are more likely to take classes in math, science, and information technology.” Sherwin, from the ACLU, says she doesn’t see anything wrong with single-sex schools that don’t use different teaching methods for boys and girls. But she adds, “Whenever you make sex the most salient category for grouping children, it certainly sends a message about sex difference.”

I wish I could say this story surprised me, but health classes at my public high school were filled with sexual stereotyping. One hapless gym teacher explained to my sophomore class that women, as born gatherers, were “programmed” – I remember the word distinctly – to browse endlessly for shoes at the mall, while, men, as natural hunters, would shoot straight to the electronics store. (This being South Jersey, all analogies were mall analogies).

I hope today’s teachers are more enlightened than they were in the early aughts, but that school’s website still hosts materials like this:

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A school doesn’t have to be single-sex to be sexist.