Thursday, May 09, 2002

Separate but Equal

So the Bush administration is making it easier for public schools to segregate students by gender. Arrgh.

I might be able to buy the rationale that the federal government shouldn't be prohibiting the local governments from determining the form of education that they provide. But if you think federalism is the motivating principle for this administration, I hope you're enjoying your medical marijuana. After all, if it's not the federal government's business to encourage or discourage this sort of thing, why are they offering $3 million for pilot programs? Oh, that's right, to encourage it.

So that leaves the real justification:

Advocates, supported by a growing body of research, say encouraging single-sex schools offers the promise of benefiting both boys and girls, some of whom do better in such settings.

First, the obligatory inflammatory racial analogy. If research showed that segregating students by race raised their test scores, should we do it? Of course not.

Dividing up students by gender (or by race) encourages them to think of students in the other school as "the other". OK, great, the boys aren't causing trouble in class to impress the girls. (This is what I heard someone on NPR give as justification for single-sex classes.) So when they eventually encounter the opposite sex outside of class -- after school, in college, in the workplace -- they will act with dignity and restraint? Of course not. They'll be even worse, because they have little experience handling themselves in mixed company. These educators are following the current public school fad of making sure that problems happen on somebody else's watch.

When I was in college, I made sure to end up on a co-ed floor in the dorm. Why? Increased opportunities for debauchery? Not really. In fact, the all-male floors frequently had visits by women -- especially during the drunken weekend parties. Strangely enough, the co-ed floors had a lower incidence of that sort of immaturity.

Look, I realize that many people have had positive experiences in single-sex educational situations. I don't propose that the government step in and prevent private or parochial schools from operating that way. But when the government itself starts dividing people up by gender, it sets an ugly precedent. What's next? If the boys are distracted by the girls -- well, that would only be true of the straight boys and girls, right? Wouldn't the gay boys be twice as distracted in an all-boys school. Follow the logic and you end up with Arundel High School for Lesbians. (OK, maybe not. But doesn't that sound like it could be on Cinemax?)

I've lost track of my main point here, which is that separate schools for boys and girls may be slightly better at teaching math and reading (though I have my doubts). But implicitly they're going to be worse at preparing them for a gender-integrated society.

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