Imagine a public, co-ed elementary school in the 21st century where boys and girls are divided into separate classrooms for reading and language arts. In the boys classroom, pictures of race cars and sports imagery decorate the walls and students take part in competitive learning games; in contrast, the girls classroom is decked out in pink and animal prints with a poster warning students to “Act pretty at all times,” and students always work collaboratively in groups. Sadly, you’re not in the Twilight Zone. Classrooms like these actually exist in the United States today. Based on debunked studies that claim girls’ brains aren’t wired for competition and that boys’ brains can’t grasp emotions, single-sex classrooms that promote sex stereotypes have flourished—even though they employ sex-based discriminatory teaching methods that violate Title IX.

Thanks to new Q&As from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), such classrooms hopefully will become a thing of the past. The guidance makes it clear that under Title IX, in order to separate students by sex for any class, schools must document a strong justification, in advance, for using a single-sex approach to fulfill a specific learning objective for that class, and must have strong evidence that the single-sex nature of the class is necessary to achieve the identified learning objective. Most importantly, such evidence cannot include “overbroad generalizations about the talents, capacities, and preferences of either sex,” such as studies based on the supposed “biological differences” between boys and girls. In other words, it is sex discrimination for schools to use methods that rely on stereotypes about boys and girls and ignore the differences among students of the same sex.

The guidance also makes it clear that:

  • Schools must undertake periodic, rigorous evaluations to assess whether each single-sex class is meeting the identified objective and whether the single-sex nature of the class is still necessary to meet that objective, and if not, the single-sex approach must be discontinued; also, the evaluations must look at the way the class is being taught and make sure classroom methods and strategies are not rooted in stereotypes;
  • Single sex classes are not “voluntary” as required by Title IX unless parents or students are given the choice to opt-in; it is not enough for schools to automatically enroll students in a single-sex class and give them the chance to opt-out;
  • Decisions to opt-in to a single-sex class must be informed, and schools cannot try to sway parents and students one way or another;
  • For each single-sex class offered, a school must have a substantially equal co-ed option, and whether classes are substantially equal depends on a number of tangible and intangible factors (explained in detail in the guidance);  
  • Students with disabilities and English language learners may not be excluded from single-sex classes because of their need for special education or related services or English language services—those services must be provided in single-sex classes just as they are in co-ed classes; and
  • Transgender students must be allowed to participate in single-sex classes consistent with their gender identity.

These are not new rules, but lots of schools were getting it wrong. This helpful document should clear up any confusion, but as always the key will be strong enforcement—making sure schools take these requirements seriously and know that OCR and others—like the ACLU, which has filed several lawsuits and OCR complaints against school districts with classes that perpetuate sex stereotypes—are watching and will hold them accountable.

After all, don’t we want our schools to do what works, not make assumptions based on sex that are not supported by evidence and that go against what our nation stands for? We have to make sure all kids are allowed to follow their dreams and are not boxed into outdated gender roles picked by someone else, which research shows are harmful to both boys and girls. To do anything less, would leave them trapped . . . in the Twilight Zone.

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