Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Public Single-Sex K-12 Education: The Renewal of Sex-Based Policy by Post-Race Politics, 1986-2006

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Public Single-Sex K-12 Education: The Renewal of Sex-Based Policy by Post-Race Politics, 1986-2006

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

A new movement for single-sex education in public K-12 schools attracted national attention in the early 1990s and attained federal funding and legal support in the early 2000s. This paper argues that this rise of sex-conscious education policy was made possible by the fall of race-conscious school reform. Once race-based policy became a political and legal non-starter, administrators sought novel, indirect policies to improve achievement for minority and low-income students. And once schools became homogenous by race and income as a result of white flight and suspended school busing, achievement gaps by gender became visible opportunities for intervention. Gender gaps would not have been visible in schools of mixed income and race, as differences in achievement by race and income would have trumped those by gender. Previous accounts of this new single-sex education movement have focused on the popular science of gender differences and school choice. While these were two immediate motivators, race and income differences underlie these explanations also: issues of race and income were integral to the data supporting single-sex education and to the rhetoric of popular choice. Following this historical analysis, the article suggests problems that may result as gender-based policies are asked to do the work of closing race-based achievement gaps. Because gender-segregating policies are not relegated by race or income, devoting national funding to single-sex education may redirect resources from closing large inequalities in achievement by race and income to closing small inequalities by gender among students already near the top.

Single-sex education is on the rise. Despite unproven benefits and disputed constitutional status, the number of public K-12 schools offering single-sex education grew from 5 in 1995 to 547 in 2009. ' While the single-sex programs comprise less than one percent of all public schools, their increase marks a sea change in federal funding and civil rights policy.2 In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act earmarked $3 million for new single-sex programs; and, in 2006, the U.S. Department of Education gave new latitude to single-sex schools in what The New York Times called "the most significant policy change" on gender in education since the 1972 passage of Title IX.3 The new generation of single-sex schooling comes when memories of earlier subordination by sex still remain.4 In the 1980s and 1990s, the Supreme Court forced each singlesex public university it scrutinized to become coeducational.5 The Court found that these schools relied on overbroad generalizations about gender and frustrated the constitution's equal protection clause.6 What is the explanation for the changing tide in single-sex K-12 education, and what are the consequences?

The story of gender in education is also one of race. The rise in single-sex programs came with the fall of race-linked integration policies. The largest academic achievement gaps exist between white and black students, and not between girls and boys.7 Yet when race-linked programs became a political and legal non-starter in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gender-linked programs emerged as a dubious substitute to improve achievement.8 The failure of desegregation renewed interest in single-sex education for two reasons. First, the end of race-linked efforts left a policy vacuum, which leaders sought to fill with novel, even desperate, approaches. Second, the end of forced integration left classrooms often homogenous by race and income, making the smaller gaps in achievement by sex apparent to local administrators.9 In schools with bused students and mixed demographics, academic achievement differed most by income and race, not sex.10 On average, even as white girls outperform white boys in reading and black girls outperform black boys, white students of either sex outperform black students of either sex (and so also for other subjects, mutatis mutandis). …

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