Some of my feminist friends are going to argue with me vehemently about this. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings just released some new rules for Title IX that permit public schools to offer some single-sex educational opportunities for boys and girls. I applaud this ruling, even as the National Organization for Women (NOW), the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and others decry what they believe is an attempt to weaken Title IX.
Title IX is one of the most important laws ever conceived to protect women’s rights. Title IX mandated equal opportunities in schools at all levels for boys and girls, men and women. Title IX’s most visible impact was on women’s sports — without Title IX, the world would never have heard of Mia Hamm or Julie Foudy, the Washington Mystics or the NCAA Champion Lady Terps. The success of women in sports, as a result of Title IX, clearly helped to change the public perception about women’s abilities in many other fields.
Because of its great importance, any effort to adapt or change Title IX must be met with skepticism and great care. NOW, AAUW, NWLC and others are right to be passionate about not tampering with this great source of equal opportunity for women.
But I think they’re just wrong about opposing single-sex educational opportunties in K-12 schools. In fact, I think their opposition to this highly successful form of pedagogy works against the very girls and women who are the beneficiaries of their advocacy.
Most studies of single-gender schools for girls and colleges for women demonstrate that this form of education is extremely effective and powerful. Some of the nation’s most powerful women — Trinity Alumna Nancy Pelosi, Wellesley Alumna Hillary Clinton — and hundreds of thousands of their friends and classmates are the exemplars of women’s education. At the elementary and secondary school levels, many studies demonstrate the girls reap even greater benefits when allowed to grow and develop in environments that foster their success, free of sexual stereotypes and harassment.
Similar studies do not exist to support the benefits of single-gender education for boys, but surely they, too, reap benefits from the kind of close personal attention, good role models and emphasis on personal success that are the hallmarks of single-gender education for girls and women.
Will some people use this new ruling as a wedge to undermine Title IX, to return to the days of the men-only eating clubs and the old boys’ network, driving the women’s basketball teams back to the quonset huts on the edges of the campuses? Some might try, but they won’t get far. But that’s also why it’s so important for NOW, AAUW and NWLC to stay vigilant.
My concern is more immediate and urgent, however. Just last week, in simultaneous releases of studies in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, California and elsewhere, politicians and educators once more mounted the ramparts to decry the failures of public education in this nation. Hundreds of thousands of children, girls and boys, are dropping out before completing high school, or if they get into college they fail to complete their degrees.
If educators have a tool at hand that is proven to improve these outcomes, shouldn’t they be allowed to use it? Why would anyone deny a child an opportunity to learn in a setting that has been proven to be effective through generations? Opponents say that this is a distraction, that public education should focus on fixing its problems and addressing the critical gender equity (racial equity, ethnic equity, economic equity, etc.) problems that plague our school systems. I completely agree with the larger issues, but disagree that providing single-gender educational opportunities is a distraction or sinister.
Let the children learn in the best possible environments for their growth and success. Protect Title IX, yes, but don’t smother educational opportunity in the process.