10:06am: Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval

Hoppy’s Commentary for Monday

In 2006, then U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced a regulatory change making it easier for public schools to have single-sex classes. 

“Research shows that some students may learn better in single-sex education environments,” Spellings said at the time.  “The Department of Education is committed to giving communities more choices in how they go about offering varied learning environments to their students."

Since then, the number of single-sex classrooms has increased from a handful to over 500.  In West Virginia, three counties—Cabell, Kanawha and Wood—have taken advantage of the rule change and given parents at some schools the option of single-sex classes for their children.

But that may be changing now that the ACLU has gotten involved.

Last May, the ACLU sent letters to school districts in West Virginia, Alabama, Maine and Virginia telling them to stop separating the boys and girls or end up in court facing discrimination charges. 

“These types of programs really mislead children and parents,” said West Virginia ACLU executive director Brenda Green.  “They make it difficult for them to be prepared for the real world.”

Kanawha and Cabell counties caved to the pressure, but Wood County is hanging tough. Officials there believe the single-gender classes at the historically troubled Van Devender Middle School are legal and effective.

“We believe that our program is in compliance with the law,” said Wood County school board attorney Dean Furner.

The research on single-sex classes is mixed.  Critics say separating the boys and girls in school does not improve education and, in fact, perpetuates sexual stereotypes.  Supporters argue it eases sexual tensions and leads to higher achievement.

It’s evident, however, that based on the spread of single-sex classes, school administrators, teachers and parents like the idea of at least having the option. And, in many cases, students in these separate classes report they feel more comfortable and are more willing to participate. 

The concept of choice is finally gaining ground in the public schools.  The tired one-size-fits-all approach leaves parents and teachers with few options as they watch students lose ground to their counterparts in other countries, graduate unprepared for college or the workforce or, at worst, drop out.

More school districts are trying new techniques—at least as much as they can, given the over-regulated bureaucracy—to improve education.  Single-sex classes may be helpful. 

What’s unhelpful here is the misguided challenge from the ACLU.  If that organization really wanted to take a bite at the education apple, it should question whether the state is meeting its Constitutional obligation to provide for a “thorough and efficient system of free schools.”

The ACLU’s Green is at least on the right track when she talks about the difficulty in preparing children for the real world.  Any teacher or parent will affirm that.  

But dragging beleaguered school systems into court because of questionable fears about sexual stereotyping is a misplaced effort. 

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