Sex Segregation in Education

FMF Studies of U.S. Public School Sex Segregation

Despite evidence that single-sex classes are “educationally unsound,” numbers continue to grow

FMF multi-year studies document a continued increase in numbers of coed K-12 public schools with single-sex classes and single-sex public schools from 2007 to 2018. They and other research provide substantial evidence that deliberate sex segregation is educationally unsound, economically wasteful, and often unlawful.

In its third national April 12, 2018 study “Tracking Deliberate Sex Segregation in U.S. K-12 Public Schools” (PDF) based on information from 2013-17, FMF initially named 794 public coed schools that reported having single-sex academic classes and identified 75 all-girl and 58 all-boy public schools. These results were based on the 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) as well as other information we could find by 2017. The U.S. Department of Education released information from the 2015-16 CRDC on April 24, 2018, after the FMF report with its list of schools was finalized.

Follow-up action is needed to learn about public K-12 schools that plan to continue their sex segregation in the future and to learn if any of this single-sex education is adequately justified using the 2014 single-sex guidance from OCR (PDF) and other laws and policies. Therefore, FMF is asking Title IX Coordinators and other experts in state education agencies, local school districts and gender equity advocacy to check on the current status of sex segregation. This can be done by contacting the named schools in the April 12, 2018 FMF study along with additional schools listed as having single-sex classes in the 2015-16 CRDC. School District Title IX Coordinators should be able to help with this. The 2015-16 CRDC contains the most current national contact information on Title IX and other Civil Rights Coordinators in K-12 school districts.

We are optimistic that the numbers of public coed schools with single-sex classes can be reduced as educators learn that this sex separation is not justified based on 2014 guidance from OCR, research results, and their own negative experiences. If schools have not stopped their deliberate sex segregation, Title IX Coordinators and others should require that these schools provide evidence-based justifications indicating full compliance with the 2014 OCR single-sex guidance.

The Executive Summary (PDF) of the April 12, 2018 FMF report (PDF) includes a U.S. Map of States with Schools Reporting Single-Sex Academic Classes 2013-14 and a map of All-Boy and All-Girl Public Schools in 2017.

The previous 2014 FMF national study “Identifying U.S. K-12 Public Schools with Deliberate Sex Segregation (2011-14)” (PDF) was based on the 2011-12 CRDC responses. It listed 805 public K-12 schools with intentional single-sex education by name and state and 67 all-girl public schools and 39 all-boy public schools. (Read more in the press release and news story blogs.) .

The first FMF three-part study State of Public School Sex Segregation in the United States (2007-2010) (PDF) released in 2012 was based on responses from the 2006 and 2010 CRDCs and much more – such as verification information from State Title IX Coordinators. It documented 646 K-12 public schools with deliberate sex segregation including 564 coed schools with single-sex academic classes and 47 all-girl and 35 all-boy single-sex public schools. It also provided many examples of how schools violated legal prohibitions against sex discrimination. The three parts of the State of Public School Sex Segregation in the United States (2007-2010) follow:

Part I: Patterns of K-12 Single-sex Public Education in the U.S. (PDF)
Part II: Role of States in Addressing Single-sex Public Education (PDF)
Part III: Summary and Recommendations (PDF)

Problems with Sex-Segregated Public Education

Increased Sex Segregation Is More Likely to Increase Sex Discrimination and Sex Stereotyping in Public K-12 Education than to Reduce It

After Title IX was passed in 1972, there was a decline in single-sex education even in private K-12 schools and colleges. Instead, the focus was on creating non-sexist coeducational classes and schools. However, since 2002, when the Department of Education signaled its intent to be more flexible in allowing the expansion of sex- segregated education, there was an increase in intentional sex segregation in K-12 non-vocational public education. In 2006, the Department of Education issued a Title IX regulation that weakened safeguards against sex discrimination, the sole purpose of Title IX. Noting missing data, the Feminist Majority Foundation’s multi-year studies estimated that there were over 1000 public K-12 U.S. schools with deliberate single-sex academic classes during 2011-17.

Individuals concerned with sex-segregated instruction should be aware of the following:

  • Sex segregation erases the existence of trans and non-binary students. All students deserve the right to a safe education that affirms their identity. Sex-segregated schools limit students who don’t fit the gender binary and can put them in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe environments where they could be misgendered or bullied.
  • Separate is not equal or fair to all. It is very difficult to provide even “substantial” equality in sex segregated schools, classes, or activities, whether we are talking about facilities, quality of instruction, levels of expectations, treatment of students, or preference for a particular teacher.
  • Sex segregation (allowed under the 2006 regulation changes) is absolute and not totally voluntary. Even advocates of single-sex education agree that there is more variation within groups of girls and boys than between them, but they ignore this important truth when excluding everyone of one sex from a class intended for all boys or all girls, even if the excluded girls or boys want to enroll.
  • Many assumptions about benefits of sex segregation are educationally unsound.  Often the post 2006 sex segregated classes and schools were based on inaccurate claims of innate student differences by sex and related myths that male and female students learn differently and should receive dissimilar instruction. Good educational practices can and do meet the needs of both girls and boys in a coeducational setting by addressing individual needs and by consciously striving for gender equity in curriculum and instruction.
  • Research results do not support the superiority of sex segregation in advancing student learning or in decreasing sex discrimination. It is difficult to conduct fully equitable comparisons of single-sex and coeducational programs or schools to learn what is better, as many other factors may influence the results. Although it is possible that both coeducational and single-sex classes may help either eliminate or increase sex stereotyping, increased sex stereotyping is likely to be more of a problem in sex-segregated classes. The patterns of results from various single studies of sex-segregated education do not show consistent superiority on any outcome measures. Additionally, few of these studies examined outcome measures related to decreasing sex discrimination or sex stereotyping. (See Handbook for Achieving Gender Equity through Education, 2007, especially Chapters 9 and 31 and the articles by Halpern, et al. and the meta-analysis by Pahlke, Hyde and Allison.)
  • Costs are higher. The separate operation and facilities for single-sex education are more costly than comparable coeducation. It takes more time and money to assure that all facilities and resources are equitable for both girls and boys in segregated compared to co-educational options. Also, additional resources are needed for staff training and program evaluation and for responding to public information requests and litigation to defend potentially discriminatory practices.
  • Evaluations are critically important, but costlyThe monitoring and evaluations needed to assure continued parity with equivalent coeducational opportunities and avoidance of increased stereotyping in single-sex education “experiments” need to be done carefully and rigorously to meet the Department of Education’s own What Works Clearinghouse standards of effectiveness, which are designed for all educational programs and certainly should also apply to single-sex instruction. Obtaining evidence to justify this sex segregation is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. See Feminist Majority Foundation suggested evaluation guidelines (PDF). (The December 2014 Office for Civil Rights Single-sex Guidance (PDF) specifies the need to meet the What Works Clearinghouse standards of effectiveness.)
  • The institutions responsible for the single sex education may face lawsuits and Title IX complaints. The ACLU web page “Sex-Segregated Schools: Separate and Unequal” and their campaign “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” document many of their successful and ongoing efforts to use the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause, Title IX, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, and state laws to end sex discrimination associated with this sex segregation.

In summary, most efforts to provide sex-segregated education are detrimental and waste resources that instead should be used to end sex stereotyping and discrimination in coeducational environments, especially for the most vulnerable students who face multiple types of discrimination related to poverty, race, ethnicity, disabilities, and sexual identity or orientation.

Title IX has been a highly effective and popular law. It has withstood many challenges. The 2006 Department of Education regulation that encourages sex segregation undermines the intent of Title IX and will continually threaten the advancement of gender equity in U.S. schools unless there are adequate justifications for any very specific and limited sex segregation as outlined in the 2014 OCR guidance on single-sex education and FMF’s evaluation guidelines. There is no right to discriminate on the basis of sex using federal financial assistance to education.

(This section of the FMF sex segregation web page on “Problems with Sex-Segregated Public Education” is also available as a separate PDF Handout.)

Background on Efforts to Stop Discriminatory Publicly Supported Sex-Segregated Education

In March 2004, the U.S. Department of Education proposed changes to the Title IX regulations that would make it significantly easier for schools and school districts to allow single-sex classes and single-sex schools. On October 25, 2006 the Department of Education issued the final changes to its Title IX regulation without remedying the key objections of the 6,000 people who submitted public comments opposing the 2004 proposed changes.

The original 1975 Title IX regulations used by multiple federal agencies permit sex-segregated education under very limited circumstances, such as for single-sex schools and classes when they are needed to overcome the effects of gender discrimination. The 2006 Department of Education Title IX regulation allows K-12 non-vocational single-sex schools, classes, and extracurricular activities in public elementary and secondary schools for a variety of vague purposes such as “the achievement of an important governmental or educational objective”. This 2006 Department of Education Title IX regulation no longer ties the key justification for allowing this sex segregation to overcoming the effects of sex discrimination, the sole purpose of Title IX. 

These 2006 Title IX regulation changes allow separate facilities or classes as long as the gender that is not given the special class or school receives a “substantially equal” coed educational opportunity. “Substantially equal” is not specifically defined in the regulation and there are no instructions in the 2006 regulation on how to learn if the single-sex activities contribute to increased sex stereotyping and sex discrimination or if they contribute to achieving any important governmental objectives such as increased academic achievement. Also, the vague evaluation requirements do not provide explicit guidance on how the school must demonstrate that its single-sex instruction is any more effective than coed instruction.

The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) and many feminist groups see this weakening of Title IX and related government encouragement of single-sex education as an improper use of Title IX. The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education points out that instead of making it clear that Title IX protects against sex discrimination, these rule changes facilitate sex discrimination and should be rescinded.

Help from recent guidance on stopping sex discriminatory sex segregation

FMF and other equity advocates hope that if education decision makers understand that deliberate sex-segregated public education is legally, educationally, and economically unsound, they will stop allowing it in their schools. If followed rigorously, the following two sets of guidance should help end questionable sex segregation in public education programs and activities.  

In 2013 FMF submitted “Suggestions for Evaluation Guidelines for Schools Contemplating or Using Single-sex Education“ (PDF)  to the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education and also shared it with our gender equity colleagues. The Executive Summary (PDF) of the FMF evaluation guidelines outline three evaluation phases that should be used prior to Title IX coordinators, administrators, school boards, and others approving the initiation or continuation of this sex segregation.

On Dec. 1, 2014, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education issued long-awaited “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Single-Sex Elementary and Secondary Classes and Extracurricular Activities” (PDF). This guidance seeks to provide answers to what public schools providing single-sex education must do to comply with Title IX, the U.S. Constitution and other federal and state civil rights laws to avoid discrimination. The 33 questions and answers in this OCR Dec. 2014 guidance addresses violations of equity principles discussed earlier. For example, they address examples of sex discrimination identified in the FMF multi-year reports for 2007-10 and 2014, the problems with sex segregation outlined in the FMF handout (PDF), as well as many of the FMF “Suggestions for Evaluation Guidelines for Schools Contemplating or Using Single-sex Education.” However, this 2014 OCR guidance is based on the 2006 Title IX regulation which equity advocates believe should be rescinded because it allows sex segregation for vague purposes such as “increasing diversity” (in instructional strategies) which has nothing to do with decreasing sex discrimination under Title IX. 

In summary, FMF hopes that education and equity experts, including the required Title IX Coordinators, will identify public schools in their areas that are using deliberate sex segregation. (The FMF studies listing schools with sex segregation by state should help with the initial identification.) After identifying schools with deliberate sex segregation, these experts should work with others to learn if the schools are in full compliance with Title IX, the U.S. Constitution, and other civil rights laws. The FMF and the December 2014 OCR legal guidance should provide an initial framework for making fully informed decisions about allowing any deliberate sex segregation. But the experts should also determine if the sex segregation is improving education better than comparable coeducation and if it is more cost-effective. If there is no convincing evidence that the specific sex segregation is better than comparable coeducation, it should be ended and all efforts should be used to create high quality gender equitable coeducation.

Additional Information

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