With the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, it has become increasingly clear that the public school system in the United States may face a series of harmful changes to its structure in the next four years. These changes could include cuts to funding for public schools and the funneling of money into for-profit charter, religious, or private institutions. One surprising trend that is coming into prominence is single-gender education in public schools. When most Americans picture gender-segregated education in K-12 schools, they imagine all-girl Catholic schools or antiquated boarding schools for boys. However, single-gender education is very much present, and is starting to break into public schools.
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is one such district that is championing single-gender education. They currently operate one middle school in which the students are separated by gender, the Young Oak Kim Academy (YOKA), as well as a newly-opened academy for girls in STEM. The school district has been ordered by the California Department of Education (CDE) to shift the program at YOKA to a coeducational model, but LAUSD is instead seeking to change the law that is limiting their capacity to expand on single-gender education. California Assembly bill A.B. 23 would allow YOKA to continue its gender-segregation policy, relaxing California state protections against same-gender education and paving the way for other school districts to follow suit.
I spoke with Kathy Sher, a Legislative Advocate at the ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy, about her work on this issue and what the emergence of this type of legislature means for the future of public education, both in California and nationwide.
LT: What has your work with the ACLU of Northern California in regards to same-gender education looked like?
KS: I started learning about the issue of single gender public education due to the introduction of AB 23, a bill introduced in the California Assembly this year to allow the creation of single-gender public schools. Although changes to the federal Title IX regulations in 2006 have led to an explosion in the number of single gender schools nationally, in California there has been little interest in single gender public education in the past twenty years. This may be the result of a 1990s California pilot project setting up a number of single gender schools, which ended in all of the schools either closing or becoming coeducational.
Working to defeat AB 23 has been a crash course in learning about the problems with single gender public schools. Although evidence shows that single gender programs do not boost academic achievement for either boys or girls when compared to similar coeducational programs, proponents point to the need for better choices in educationally underserved communities as justification for the creation of single gender schools. Unfortunately, many single gender schools base their teaching styles on junk science rooted in gender stereotypes. Even for those single gender schools with better teaching models, the message sent when boys and girls are separated is that gender, not individual abilities and interests, is the most important thing determining how a student learns. And students who attend single gender schools miss out on the chance to work with the other gender as peers. LGBTQ students are also harmed when the public school system reinforces gender stereotypes and a rigid gender binary.
Educating legislators about the real harm done by single gender public schools has been difficult. Many legislators associate single gender education with rigorous academic programs offered in private schools, and want public schools to offer similar choices. They don’t immediately see that a single gender school may be a good school for reasons having nothing to do with it being single gender. But the efforts of the coalition of women’s rights groups and civil rights groups opposing the bill have led to some progress in getting the legislature to understand that single gender schools are not the right answer, that communities need better schools that serve all of their students.
LT: Can you talk about your experience with LAUSD?
KS: In 2015, the ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project submitted a letter to the California Department of Education expressing concerns about the gender-separated programs of a nominally coeducational middle school in Los Angeles called the Young Oak Kim Academy (YOKA). YOKA separates boys and girls for all academic classes and expressly bases its educational philosophy on pseudoscience alleging that “brain-based” research shows that boys and girls learn differently. The ACLU letter eventually resulted in a decision by the [California Department of Education] requiring YOKA to bring its program into compliance with the requirements of federal and state anti-discrimination law no later than the first day of school in fall 2017. LAUSD’s response was that they would make a plan to bring the school into compliance, but if state law were changed to conform with federal law, YOKA would retain single sex classes to the extent allowed under federal and state law. AB 23 has been introduced as an urgency measure, which will take effect immediately if it is signed into law, apparently to allow YOKA to continue putting boys and girls in separate classes.
Meanwhile, despite the CDE’s decision regarding YOKA, LAUSD has approved several new single gender schools. The Girls Academic Leadership Academy, a girls-only public middle and high school, opened last fall, as did the Girls Athletic Leadership School, a girls-only charter middle school. The Boys Academic Leadership Academy is planned to open in fall of 2017. Although I am sure the District is acting with the best of intentions, their decision to go down this path is not one that will serve the students of Los Angeles well.
LT: Gender-segregated programs often cite “biological differences” as justification for their existence. Can you talk a bit about these types of statements?
KS: Studies consistently show that learning needs differ more within groups of boys and girls than between the genders – each boy and each girl learns differently, and which gender a student is says little about how that student learns best. Nor is there any evidence showing that separating boys and girls improves educational outcomes for either group. Yet across the country single-gender schools continue to teach boys and girls differently, in ways that are rooted in and reinforce gender stereotypes.
The programs that cite biological differences to support teaching boys and girls differently tend to rely on stereotypes regarding the genders as the basis for the way each group is taught – such as boys being better at math and girls being more verbal, or boys needing more physical activity while girls are supposedly better at sitting still. The end result is teaching the kids to buy into gender stereotypes and denying them the chance to figure out without preconceptions what their own individual strengths and interests are.
LT: If California Assembly bill A.B. 23 were to become a law, what aspects of public education in California would change? What are the prospects of this happening?
KS: That’s actually a difficult question to answer. Even if California were to change the Education Code to loosen the restrictions on single-gender public education, such programs would continue to be subject to challenge under the California Constitution, which applies a strict scrutiny standard to any governmental discrimination based on gender. For most single-gender schools, it would also be difficult to meet the requirements of the Title IX regulations and the 2014 Guidance regarding compliance with those regulations.
AB 23 in its current form would apply to LAUSD only, and sunsets at the end of 2024. If the bill passes – which it may, although it will likely have to be further amended – the immediate effect will be to allow continued gender separation at YOKA. The planned and existing single gender schools within LAUSD will continue to operate, but they likely will do so with or without any change in law. LAUSD will likely take passage of the bill as encouragement to approve the establishment of more single gender schools – schools which may then be challenged under the California Constitution or under federal law. It’s hard to predict whether any such schools will be able to remain in business, let alone whether the Legislature might, in 2024, decide to continue LAUSD’s pilot program or even allow single gender education statewide.
LT: What can people do to educate themselves on the issue of same-gender public schools?
KS: The best overall resource I’ve found on single-gender public schools is the chapter on single-sex education in the National Coalition on Women and Girls in Education’s report on Title IX at 45, available here. The chapter discusses both the academic research regarding single gender public education and the legal framework that addresses these programs. It also has extensive citations for those interested in delving further into the issue.
Those interested in AB 23 in particular can look at the bill and related materials on the California Legislative Information website.