• Politics
  • Education

Department of Education Walks Delicate Line on Single-Sex Classrooms

7 minute read

The Department of Education doesn’t have much to say about the science of whether boys and girls’ brains work differently. But if you read between the lines of its guidance on single-sex public education released Monday, it’s clear the agency is not sold on it.

Taking up only about a page of the 34-page guidelines, the Department of Education says only that “evidence of general biological differences is not sufficient to allow teachers to select different teaching methods or strategies for boys and girls.” It stops short of either condemning or praising single-sex classrooms.

But if the agency avoided taking an official stance, the guidelines [PDF] are clearly designed to slow the trend towards separate classrooms by describing a fairly complicated legal pathway that school districts must follow in order to create them without violating the U.S. Constitution or equal rights laws.

That’s likely due to the fact that separate classrooms are at the center of a white-hot debate in education circles today.

Led in part the conservative school choice movement, advocates for single-sex education base their case on scientific studies about how girls’ and boys’ brains are “hard-wired” differently, and argue that separating the genders would improve learning outcomes. While specific methods differ by state and district, they mostly hinge on the idea that girls learn better in emotionally supportive, collaborative groups and may not be as good at grasping abstract mathematical concepts, while boys thrive in competitive environments and tend to struggle with reading and art.

For example, one professional development session in Florida this year instructed teachers to engage boys “in higher level discourse,” while focusing on connecting emotionally with girls. “Girls will learn better if they believe a teacher cares about them,” the program stated, according to the ACLU. Another Florida program designed for kindergarten teachers was called “Busy Boys, Little Ladies.” Outspoken psychologist and physician Leonard Sax, who has written extensively on the issue, says that girls do not respond positively to stress and so should not be given time limits on a test, while boys should be challenged with competitive activities and required to play sports.

For many social scientists, the idea of teaching children separately — or even differently — because of their gender boils the blood. One widely-cited 2011 study, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” dismissed the studies used by people like Sax as “deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence.” And a February 2014 meta-study by the American Psychological Association, which looked at 184 studies of more than 1.6 million students around the world, said there is simply no reason to believe that girls and boys learn better when they’re separated from each other.

While some state and district-level studies indicate that children in single-sex classrooms have improved more rapidly than their co-ed counterparts, social scientists caution that the success of some single-sex programs can often be attributed to other variables, such as increases in funding, more parental engagement, and changes in discipline techniques.

Civil rights advocates have picked up the fight. In September, the American Civil Liberties Union called on the DOE to “make clear to schools across the country that sex segregation based on … blatant sex stereotypes violates the law.” The ACLU has filed cease-and-desist letters to at least a dozen states, including Alabama, Maine, Mississippi, West Virginia, Virginia and Florida, in the last few years calling on them to stop separating boys and girls on the basis of “junk science” on how the two genders’ brains work.

The ACLU has also launched a nationwide campaign, “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes,” which argues that promoting entrenched ideas of what it means to be a girl or a boy is harmful. For example, in one Florida school, according to the New York Times, the boys’ classroom is decorated with race cars and football iconography, while the girls’ classroom, lined with animal prints and pink accoutrement, admonishes girls to “Act pretty at all times!” This year, the ACLU filed a federal complaint with the DOE on the basis that several counties in Florida are using “junk science about difference between boys’ and girls’ brains” to promote sex discrimination.

The DOE’s recent guidelines gave a nod to the ACLU on that much. If teachers of single-sex classes “became aware of” studies suggesting that girls’ hearing is more sensitive than boys’ hearing, for example, and then implemented a teaching method of “talking loudly” in all-boys classes, that would be a violation of equal rights legislation, the DOE guidelines read. In order to be legal, teachers must rely on “evidence that directly linked that particular teaching method or strategy to improved educational achievement for boys,” rather than on “purported biological difference…to conclude that the particular teaching method or strategy was appropriate,” they said.

Meanwhile, the number of single-sex classrooms, as well as entirely single-sex public schools, continues to grow. In the 2001-2002 school year, only about a dozen public schools offered single-sex classrooms, according to the National Association for Choice in Education (NACE); by the 2011-2012 school year, there were about 500. Now, there are about 750 public schools that offer one or more single-sex class, and 850 entirely single-sex public schools around the country, according to government data. One reason for the growing trend toward single-sex education is former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ 2006 decision to push through new rules on single-sex classrooms and schools, which gave states and public school districts more leeway in creating and funding single-sex learning environments. This year, for instance, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed new legislation to provide more training for teachers who work in all-boys or all-girls classes.

The uptick in single-sex classes and schools is also due to the fact that beliefs about how boys and girls brains work remain deeply entrenched in the mainstream. In 2005, former Harvard University President Larry Summers famously, or infamously, suggested that perhaps there were “issues of intrinsic aptitude” among men and women in the sciences. On its website, the National Education Association offers an even-keeled assessment of the pros and cons of single-sex education. The DOE’s guidance Monday also didn’t take sides.

In some ways, this discussion is not new. In the ‘90s, advocates of single-sex classrooms cited studies indicating that girls were intimidated and distracted by their male counterparts’ louder, more confident answers in class, and therefore tended to become less active participants in learning environments. In the 2000s, as girls’ test scores and grades skyrocketed, eclipsing the boys’ more incremental improvement, advocates for single-sex classrooms simply shifted their theory, citing other findings indicating that boys are unable to fairly compete in classrooms where supposedly “feminine” skills, like sitting still and writing neatly, are rewarded.

Critics of single-sex education argue that such shifting justifications should be a red flag. “These are the kinds of ideas that have historically been used to push boys and girls onto very different educational tracks,” said Nancy Abudu, ACLU of Florida’s Director of Legal Operations, in a statement. They are “exactly what anti-discrimination laws are supposed to protect parents and students from.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com