Can Separate Ever Be Equal? For Girls, Answer Isn't Simple

Karen Stabiner is the author of "All Girls: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters."

For more than 30 years, Title IX has prohibited gender discrimination at any school that receives federal funding. We think of it as the legislation that led to parity in athletic programs, but Title IX did much more than that: Among other things, it prohibited single-sex classes in public schools unless there was documented proof of inequity in the coed classroom.

Last week, that changed. The Bush administration issued revised Title IX guidelines that will allow single-sex public schools and classes. Separate but equal seems to be staging a comeback, at least where gender is concerned.

When Title IX outlawed single-sex programs back in 1972, it was because gender discrimination was rampant. As the revised guidelines filed by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights put it, "... at the time that the current regulations were issued, it was not unreasonable to base the regulations on a presumption that, if recipients were permitted to provide single-sex classes beyond the most limited of circumstances, discriminatory practices would likely continue." Loosely translated, we could not be trusted to get it right; we might offer the boys constitutional law, and the girls fashion history.

Things are a lot better now: "While there are still more gains to be made," the document goes on to say, "schools are now far more equitable in their treatment of female students. Those changes are due in no small measure to Title IX...."

So we prepare to relax the restrictions, making some feminists and educators extremely apprehensive. Activists who came of age in the 1960s have always resisted attempts to tamper with Title IX; after years of hard-won effort, women's advocates hardly want to see vive la difference elevated to national policy. There's also a question of semantics. The new regulations refer to "substantially equal" opportunities for both sexes. My memory of math class is that things were either equal or not equal. Modifiers were out of place, because equal was absolute. The federal government seems to think otherwise at the moment, and the notion of interpretive equality has to chill the heart of every woman who still earns less than her male counterpart.

The new policy's detractors cite a 1998 report by the American Assn. of University Women that failed to conclude that single-sex education was better for girls. But those critics are missing the point: The report called for more disciplined research because public policy was at stake; the group never said single-sex classes were a bad idea.

In fact, one of the studies the group reviewed, by Cornelius Riordan of Providence College, stood as a blunt challenge to the traditionally coeducational public school system. Riordan found that single-sex education most profited three specific groups: girls, the poor, and ethnic minorities. Because poor ethnic minorities are least likely to have access to private schools, one had to ask: If single-sex education works as well as some researchers say it does, if it works as well as the statistics from the National Coalition of Girls' Schools suggest, then what responsibility does this society have to the girls who might profit most dramatically from it?

Equality is a more subtle concept than straight-on parity. We might not like it, but we know a lot more than we did three decades ago about how girls and boys learn best. There's a physiological reason why most of the students in remedial reading classes are boys. There's a reason girls don't get called on first in math, and it's the same reason their grandmothers recover from strokes more successfully than their grandfathers do. Our brains are not politically correct; in many ways, they develop differently. And single-sex public schools that take these things into account may be good for some girls.

Since 1996, when the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem opened as the first new single-sex public school in decades, a handful of dedicated educators and philanthropists have started two dozen such schools. The results have been encouraging. The Leadership School takes girls out of a coed system where they had only a 50% chance of graduating on time, raises their test scores and grades and sends most of them to four-year colleges with financial aid. Given our high school students' rather dismal performance, who wouldn't want to hop on that bandwagon?

Still, wary skepticism is the only appropriate response to the government's new guidelines. What has been done carefully and well at a handful of schools may not survive mass production; for starters, it's not clear how already-strapped school districts would pay for expanded programs, because the $297 million the government has earmarked for educational innovations has to pay for a long list of ideas. And simply separating girls from boys is not going to be sufficient. Single-sex programs require both financial and philosophical support. Without it, they will end up yet another entry on the long, dismal list of things our school system fails to do well.

We have the chance, now, to expand the notion of equal opportunity in the classroom -- to bring it up to date, taking into account everything we've learned. If we cling to the status quo, we may continue to shortchange our children. If we fail to support single-sex education with funding, passionate teachers and a truly progressive commitment to equality, then we will undermine what's left of the public school system.

A friend who is deeply opposed to single-sex education thinks the Bush administration has opened a Pandora's box. "Once you open the door," he says, mournfully, "you have to accept the possibility that people who do not think the way you think will want to do things you don't want them to do." True enough. But as long as the door remains closed, a vast population of public school girls and boys have no chance to experience the benefits that launched the Young Women's Leadership School students on a new path. The revised Title IX guidelines require renewed vigilance from those of us who fear an erosion of gender equity. The old Title IX was comforting in its absolutism but too rigid for these times.

Until we can honestly say that our girls and our boys receive an equal education, we have to keep looking for better ways to teach them. Change is never easy, but unlike the status quo, it carries the possibility of hope.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World