Thursday, May 20, 2004

W is for Women!

This is where one should add that internet abbreviation LOL. If George W. Bush is for women, I'm Rush Limbaugh.

He isn't for girls, either, and this makes me very angry; exploiting the vulnerable always does that. On the other hand, George definitely is for the right-wing fundamentalists (maybe 'W' stands for weirdos?), and this group wants to reinstate single-sex education to keep the evil sex away from young minds, to carefully guide the genders into their proper god-appointed roles and otherwise to follow in the footsteps of the Taliban.

Thus, there is a new proposal to 'reinterpret' Title IX, the federal rule that bans sex discrimination in education. The Bush administration wants to make it much easier for schools to provide single-sex classes and even to turn whole schools into schools for one sex only. The way to 'reinterpretation' consists essentially of dispensing with the annoying parts of Title IX, the ones that go on and on about 'equality of educational opportunity' and other such boring stuff. For example, the administration proposes that a school district could start a separate school for one gender without giving any reason whatsoever for doing so and without being required to offer the same access to single-sex education to the other gender! Also, schools could start single-sex classes for only boys or only girls in many subjects, and the only justification they would need is something as weak as 'parental interest in such classes'. The other sex doesn't have to be offered anything new at all. And most interestingly, the schools wouldn't even have to prove that the learning opportunities are equal for both boys and girls; rather it would be perfectly ok to show that they are 'substantially' equal. You know, in the ballpark. The Supreme Court of course rejected the 'substantially' equal interpretation of Title IX in its decision about VMI over a decade ago. Never mind, maybe the new Supreme Court after Bush's re-election will think differently about this.

In a nutshell, our current administration is proposing, softly, softly, behind the stage, to start the dismantling of Title IX. Title IX has had an enormous impact on girls' education in this country, and most observers view that as a positive development. Not so our current administration; for them Title IX is just that much more bureaucratic regulation that should be flushed down the toilet. In fact, the 'reinterpretation' proposal essentially says as much when it implies that sex discrimination may have been a worthwhile thing to worry about in the past, but now such worries just keep us from providing our children with the best education we can.

If this is true, how come would it be acceptable to provide some children, either boys or girls, this supposedly best education at a single-sex setting, and then to leave the other children, either girls or boys, without the same opportunities? Isn't that in itself discriminatory? Suppose that a family has two children, a boy and a girl who are fraternal twins. The new proposal would offer one of these children two choices (single-sex or coed classes or schools) and the other one only one choice (coed classes or schools). This is blatantly wrong.

It's wrong whether girls or boys would suffer from the arrangement, but my bets are on plans for having the girls suffer. This accords better with the traditional views that girls don't really need an education, and many fundamentalists hold these sorts of views. It is also the likely outcome given the current concern about boys' supposed decline* in school achievement measures. The single-sex programs are really introduced so that more attention can be given to boys, I suspect. Which is all good as long as it doesn't mean less attention for girls, but I see no safeguards in the administration's proposal against this possibility. In fact, one single-class experiment discussed in a radio program revealed itself to be an experiment in giving boys smaller class sizes and better teachers. If this is really where the benefits are, they can only be achieved in a financially strapped school district by allocating fewer resources to the remaining students; in this case girls. I find the idea that improving the education of boys should come at the expense of girls extremely distasteful, as I also find the reverse idea. This distaste doesn't seem to be shared by the Bush administration.

Is single-sex education really better, then, or at least worthy of the sort of encouragement that the relaxation of Title IX requirements would suggest? The answer is that no well-done study comparing the benefits and disadvantages of single-sex and coed education yet exists, although one is supposed to be finished in 2006. None of the existing studies correctly control for all the other determinants of educational success. We simply don't have the required statistical information, yet the government is galloping on as if it already knew the answers. In any case, should single-sex education turn out to be the superior form for some odd reason, why isn't it then offered to both genders?

I'm not a supporter of single-sex education in general, though I can see it as the right choice for some individuals. My resistance is based on the difficulty of seeing how gender-segregated education would prepare men and women to work together in a gender-integrated world (and no, boys and girls getting together after school does not teach this), and my disbelief on the facile sexual stereotypes that 'all girls learn best cooperatively' and 'all boys learn best competitively', thus the sexes should be educated separately. This assumes no individual variation in learning styles within a gender, and that is rubbish. I'm also not satisfied that 'separate' can ever really be 'equal'.

And what about the benefits of coed education? Doesn't it have benefits, too? Granted, economic considerations will keep the single-sex option a relatively rare one even if the new proposal of 'reinterpreting' Title IX is accepted. But it's important to remember that we just celebrated the famous court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education which banned racial segregation in schools, because segregation in itself was found to be discriminatory. Integration of schools by gender is not the same thing, you might say, girls and boys are different and have different needs. Maybe. But children from different ethnic backgrounds and different income classes also have different needs, Jane Smith has different needs than Sheila Jones and so on. What we are really suggesting here is that the differences by gender are so fundamental and so enormous that integration will not work; that all girls are the same as other girls and quite different from all boys who are also the same as other boys. This is simply untrue.
A report on the Bush administration proposal and many legal arguments against it can be downloaded as a pdf file from National Women' Law Center. Thanks for for the link.
*In fact, a careful perusal of statistical data shows that it is not boys in general who are doing poorly: it is boys from minority backgrounds. This suggests a much more complicated reason for the poor performance; perhaps it is a combined consequence of economic deprivation, racial discrimination and cultural factors relating to how masculinity is defined in various subgroup. If this is the case, single-sex schooling in itself wouldn't do very much for these boys.