Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Same-Sex Classrooms: Separate but Equal?

An announcement by the Bush administration to allow expansion of same-sex classes in public schools nationwide has me wondering if Title IX has been swept under the rug.

The federal action will allow same-sex public schools and classes, so long as enrollment is voluntary according to a recent Journal Sentinel article.

While progressive ideas toward education are fine and dandy, same-sex classrooms seem one-sided and it looks like the boys in Wisconsin are getting all of the bennies.

Supporters of same-sex classes say that they provide better learning environments for students, allowing teachers to focus on the different needs of boys and girls. These are the same people that think gender in inherent and not learned through social norms. Thus, gender stereotyping prevails.

One article from a Grafton newspaper describes one teacher’s boys-only classes at Kennedy Middle School as “boy-friendly”. She elaborates by saying that in the boy’s classes, reading assignments are more “action-adventure” and focus on classic male-dominated narratives such as “Julius Caesar” and “The Odyssey”. She also notes that the classroom is set up with chairs that are more comfortable for the boys to move-around in, since as she says, “they just need that movement.”

This example alone shows that regulations the require same-sex classes to be substantially equal to those offered co-ed are mere empty words. While the boys are sitting in comfy chairs and reading shoot-em-up stories, other children are subject to a different, more stringent environment. This hardly sounds equal.

The main argument is that separating the sexes in the classroom will help children focus on learning in an environment where they feel safe and have room for expression. Wonderful.

However, there does not seem to be an agency in place that will monitor whether the children in same-sex or co-ed classes are getting fair treatment or the same educational opportunities.

All children have different educational needs. Their sex alone does not designate what subjects they will excel in or where they need more help. Statistics only show the outcome of deeply rooted gender stereotypes that children are subjected to.

Placing boys and girls in separate classes doesn’t mean that they aren’t learning. The question is what they are learning. If teachers are tailoring lesson plans to fulfill pre-conceived notions about gender, they are simply reinforcing the stereotypes and thus limiting the student.

To teach a subject in a “boy or girl-friendly” manner sub-consciously tells that student that this is the only way they will be able to grasp the subject.

I can just see the girl’s math class now: “Sally has two Malibu Barbies. She trades one of them with Susie for a Cabbage Patch doll and gives the other one to Jill in exchange for a Ball Barbie. How many Barbies does Sally have?”

Others might say that students in same-sex classes have better test scores, GPAs and there is a higher probability that they will go onto college. However, most of this rhetoric comes from studies done on schools in urban areas where the majority of students come are low-income and minority. What the studies don’t say is that the classes in these schools are hideously over-crowded and lack resources and funding desperately. So when same-sex classroom experiments are done in these schools, where classes are smaller and thus give teachers more one-on-one time with students, the outcome is better. How profound!

It is one thing to have these separated classes in private schools, where regulations are different. However, to segregate boys and girls in public schools has dangerous potential to limit the child’s development.

This kind of rhetoric is vaguely reminiscent of that which pervaded our thought prior to the women’s movement. Who’s to say that the philosophy supporters of same-sex classes- that gender is inherent, that all boys and girls “naturally” learn in different ways- cannot be used to resurrect a sexist dialogue?

Here’s a crazy idea: smaller class sizes, more after-school learning programs and increased parental involvement? These are extremely valuable resources for students of all ages. Let’s focus on developing the children and showing them how to grow in a diverse environment. Segregating students by sex will hinder this process and open the door for other forms of sanctioned discrimination.

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