Where the Boys Are

Remember Title IX, the federal legislation that guarantees equality by sex in education? It was passed in 1972, on the heels of racial integration, and with a rather similar rationale: Separate was not deemed to be equal either in law or in educational outcomes. By 1995, only three sex-segregated public schools remained.

Fast forward to September 2006, and what do you find? More than 40 totally sex-segregated public schools and another 200 with sex-segregated classes in topics other than sex education or sports. What happened? Have we backpedaled on gender equality in education?

Conservatives would say that we have gone too far in the other direction. Christine Hoff-Sommers regards the coeducational classrooms as battlefields and boys as the losers of these battles. A new movement advocating more single-sex schools explains why: biological determinism. According to pop psychologists Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax, prophets of this movement, girls and boys have such inherently different brains that they must be educated separately. Boys, from Mars, thrive on hierarchical structure, abstract thought, and stress. Girls, from Venus, thrive in relaxed situations (take off those shoes), do best with very concrete examples, and can't take stress. Sax wants teachers to yell at boys and to provide sofas for girls. Because of the blue and pink brains, you know.

Too bad that the scientific evidence underlying these recommendations is unclear at best and nonexistent at worst. Mark Liberman, on the Web site Language Log, takes apart some of the bad science Sax uses in his popular book Why Gender Matters. He also points out that any average sex differences in learning styles are small and swamped by individual variations within each sex. Likewise, Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin reviewed 46 meta-analyses of sex differences in cognition and found the two sexes more similar than different, and a recent international study of single-sex schools failed to show them outperforming coed schools for either boys or girls. A study by Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank, found that on average, boys are doing just fine, with increasing test scores and more college degrees, though low-income boys deserve more help.

If this is true, where did the idea of a boy crisis come from? From sloppy research and our discomfort with the idea of girls doing even better, the study answers. Those supporting single-sex schools these days have modeled their campaign on the Title IX effort of three decades ago: They claim that the coeducational school system is discriminatory -- but this time the victims are male. Just consider the list of Gurian's recent publications: The Minds of Boys, The Wonder of Boys, The Wonder of Girls, The Good Son, and What Stories Does My Son Need. Sax's new book, to be published in 2007, is Boys Adrift: What's Really Behind the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys. Single-sex schools are expected to solve this so-called boy crisis in education.

So far, the Bush administration has been all too eager to apply itself to this conservative crisis. Thus, in 2004, it proposed changes to the way Title IX can be interpreted within the No Child Left Behind program, and it is also offering funds for school districts wishing to experiment with single-sex education. (States from Louisiana to Michigan have expressed interest.) We are soon to hear more about these new interpretations. If they become funding guidelines, it would be perfectly OK for a school district to offer a single-sex option as long as the other sex is offered something “substantially” equal. As far as I know, nobody knows what “substantially” means here, and that is the worry. Would it be “substantially” equal to offer one gender smaller class sizes and more teachers than the other sex? What about offering the two genders different content in their classes, perhaps based on unscientific stereotypes about boys and girls?

None of this probably bothers the Republican Party's socially conservative base. Social conservatives already view gender roles as innately determined and single-sex schools fit admirably into their sexual abstinence agenda. Neither are conservative anti-feminists likely to be upset over these developments: Anything that pokes a finger in the eye of second-wave feminists with their claims of equal treatment for girls and boys is fun for this group.

No, it's for the rest of us to worry whether separate can ever mean equal. Poor Title IX. How low you have fallen.

Jaana Goodrich is a recovering economist.