Last summer I represented 13-year-old Michelle Selden in the first case in a decade challenging sex-segregated public schools under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. In May 2006, the principal of Michelle's junior high school in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, had announced to students and parents that in the fall, boys and girls would be taught in separate classes. According to Michelle's principal, the decision to separate boys and girls was based on differences between boys' and girls' brains. While girls would be taught "good character," boys would be taught about "heroic" behavior and what it means to be a man. Michelle and her parents didn't believe that gender differences were as simple or as absolute as that. Indeed, Michelle's parents, volunteer firefighters who had met in the military, had taken the lesson from their military service that men and women worked best when they worked together and were treated equally.
The Louisiana school district abandoned its sex-segregation plan the day after we filed our lawsuit, perhaps recognizing that the proposed scheme was blatantly illegal under Title IX as it had been interpreted for over 30 years. However, only two months after that victory, the U.S. Department of Education released long-threatened new Title IX regulations that invited and encouraged public schools across the country to institute sex segregation on exactly the same sorts of retrograde theories about differences between boys' and girls' used in the Louisiana school district.
On Saturday, Title IX turned 35. In the generation since the prohibition on sex discrimination in schools became the law of the land, it has thrown open doors for women and girls seeking to participate in higher education, in athletics, in math and science, and in vocational education. Title IX states that no one may be excluded from an educational opportunity or program on the basis of sex; from 1972, when the law passed, until last October, this language was understood to forbid coeducational schools from segregating students by sex except for sex education classes and contact sports -- and even those narrow exceptions were frowned upon by the law's drafters, who knew that sex segregation was part of a long history of educational inequality.
But last October, these long-standing rules were radically changed. Despite Title IX's statement that no one may be excluded from any educational activity based on sex, the new regulations permit coeducational schools such exclusion in a wide variety of circumstances. Because of these amendments, on the 35th anniversary of Title IX, hundreds of public schools across the country are now planning and instituting sex-segregated programs for the first time in memory.
Many of these schools' programs are based on the notion that boys' brains and girls' brains are so different that they cannot both succeed in the same classroom. The two most influential proponents of this theory are probably Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian. Sax is a psychologist and the founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education; Gurian is a corporate consultant and novelist, with a graduate degree in creative writing, and founder of the Gurian Institute, which conducts trainings for teachers on brain differences between the sexes. Many teaching single-sex classes rely on their theories and methods.
Sax urges teachers not to look boys directly in the eye or smile at them. He says that boys do better under stress than girls, so girls should never be given time limits on a test and should instead be encouraged to take their shoes off in class to help them relax. Sax believes that boys who like to read, do not enjoy contact sports, and do not have a lot of close male friends are "anomalous males" and should be firmly disciplined.
According to Gurian, boys are better than girls in math because their bodies receive daily surges of testosterone, while girls have similar skills only during their menstrual cycles when they have an estrogen surge. Gurian asserts that boys are abstract thinkers and are naturally good at things like philosophy and engineering, while girls are by nature concrete thinkers. The Gurian Institute's material states, "Pursuit of power is a universal male trait. Pursuit of a comfortable environment is a universal female trait."
While the 35th anniversary of Title IX is cause for celebration, the growing influence of brain difference theories in schools cries out for close scrutiny. Title IX became law because policy-makers believed that girls' opportunities should not be constrained by stereotypes about their abilities, and that when students socialize, compete, and collaborate on an equal footing with students of the other sex at school, they are more prepared to succeed in life. At their best, public schools provide precisely the opportunity for students of different sexes, classes, races, and religions to learn from one another. To ensure that the doors opened by Title IX are not shut by the new rush toward segregation, we must reject the junk science of dressed-up gender stereotypes and reaffirm, as Title IX declared 35 years ago, that these stereotypes have no place in the classroom.