By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
Remember middle school?  Remember those awkward years from ages 11 to 14 when your body and behavior are rapidly changing and the way that everyone seems to notice?  What if you were divided by gender and made to focus on how different you are from others during those years?  That’s just what gender segregated schooling is doing, and several Virginia schools, including Woodbridge Middle School, are participating in this growing trend.
Dividing students by gender seems like a relic of some bygone era when only girls could take “Home Ec” and only boys could take “Shop”-- but it is actually a relatively new trend based on studies showing that boys and girls learn differently.
While there are apparently some positive results from gender specific teaching in core classes, what seems to go unnoticed is that segregation perpetuates gender stereotyping and further removes the educational setting from the real world, where gender segregation is diminishing, not increasing.
When I was in middle school, I was able to advance in math lessons at a faster rate than some other students and skipped ahead two grade-levels.  In my freshman year of high school I was taking a junior-year level math class.  If gender-segregated classes existed in my middle school, I might not have been pushed to excel in math because advocates of sex-segregated schools tell teachers that girls can’t understand mathematical theory as well as boys.
Teachers should certainly be aware of the studies showing not only that boys and girls learn differently, but that students of different ethnic, social and class backgrounds respond differently to different teaching methods.  Knowing how subtle distinctions in teaching can energize and encourage students is an important part of the profession in the same way that recognizing different personality types in students can help teachers connect with pupils.
But is anyone suggesting that we segregate public school students based on race, economic class, or personality types?
In Louisiana the core classes of four grades in a Lafayette school district are divided by gender, and no alternative gender-integrated classes are available.  The ACLU of Louisiana has filed suit challenging the practice.
In Woodbridge, the segregated classes are still voluntary, so at least no one is being forced into segregation.  But it is important to keep an eye on this trend.  The easy way to teach is to divide, but that undermines the core principles of equal education laid down by Brown vs. Board of Education, which recognized that the concept of “separate but equal” as applied to race was inherently discriminatory because it segregated students based on artificial differences that perpetuated existing prejudices.
Instead of segregating the genders, perhaps we should rely on tried and true improvements that work for all students—better trained teachers, decreased class sizes, individualized student attention,  and more parental involvement.
March is Women’s History Month, and while this is a good time to celebrate the progress we’ve made toward gender equality, we should not forget that the glass ceiling still exists.  Recent studies show, for example, that women make about 75% of what men make for performing the same job.
Gender segregated classrooms, whatever debatable advantages they may offer to the learning process, exacerbate gender bias—and gender bias is what leads to unequal pay for men and women.  Until I see the pay differential between men and women shrink to zero, I’d rather we put our energy into fighting gender bias rather than experimental educational programs that end up promoting it.