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America segregated schools by sex for much of its history, but citizens have fought hard to have equal education for all. Boys and girls were finally permitted to learn together in the early 20th century, and important legislation in the 1970s prohibited educational discrimination based on sex.

Can we really consider going back to the use of gender segregation?


A Short History of the Coeducation of Youth in the U.S.School

Early America

The earliest schools in America (circa 1600s) were modeled after schools in England and were nearly exclusively "finishing" schools for White, wealthy, Christian boys. The first public schools were established by Puritan settlers and served males exclusively. Often, these early schools met for only nine months of the year, releasing students during the summer to help with farming. During the summer months, the schools were opened to girls and staffed by a female teacher.

During the 1700s, coeducation began to appear on a widespread basis in English-speaking regions of North America. Coeducation was first practiced in New England, the region with the best-developed schools. Most schools were intended to provide literacy instruction for religious education. The enrollment of both boys and girls in school together probably stemmed from the growing numbers of female church members and the practical requirements of finding enough children to support schools in sparsely populated regions.

After the Revolutionary War, new expectations for America's citizens led to increased support for the education of females. The education of women was viewed as an important tool in shaping future generations into good citizens and civic leaders. Increasing numbers of private schools began to offer coeducational schooling.

Until the 1840s, the education system was highly localized and available only to wealthy families. Reformers (e.g., Horace Mann in Massachusetts and Henry Barnard in Connecticut) wanted all children to gain the benefits of education. As a result of their efforts, free public education at the elementary level was available for all American children by the end of the 19th century. By 1918, all states had passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school.

SchoolchildrenCoeducation Schooling Becomes the Norm

By 1900, most American schoolchildren were enrolled in coeducational schools, a far higher percentage than in any other nation. These children were enrolled together predominantly in primary schools, but coeducation also had become widespread in secondary schools and colleges.

Catholic schools were an exception to this trend. Many Catholic families objected to the practice of coeducation on moral and religious grounds. Echoing the arguments of advocates for separate vocational courses for young men and women, these critics claimed that the principle of differentiation was rooted in religion, and that males and females had profoundly different purposes to fulfill. The majority of Catholic schools, particularly secondary schools, remained single-sex institutions.

Coeducational Schools with Gender-Segregated Curricula

In the early 20th century, new curricula were devised for female students, including courses in home economics and traditionally feminine labor skills, such as secretarial work or garment-making. Boys enrolled in such classes as industrial arts, bookkeeping, and commercial geography. These different courses reflected a growing recognition of the importance of schooling to the labor market and of the sharp division of labor that continued to distinguish the work of men and women. As late as the early 1970s in some parts of the United States, girls and boys were routinely separated for some of their classes on a daily basis.

Single-Sex Education and the Lawcourt

Partly in response to the sex segregation of students for vocational education, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance. In enacting Title IX, Congress excluded admissions to K-12 single-sex schools and to historically single-sex undergraduate colleges from Title IX coverage, permitting such single-sex institutions to continue operating; however, changing societal norms regarding gender roles led to further decreases in single-sex schooling during the 1970s and 1980s. By most accounts, very few single-six public schools were in operation by the 1980s.

In 1982, the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan. In an opinion written by its first female Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court held that the exclusion of men from an all-female state-supported school of nursing violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

A second important legal case related to single-sex school was the U.S. Supreme Court's June 1996 decision in United States v. Virginia. The Court held that the exclusion of women from admission to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) also violated the Equal Protection Clause, making clear that any categorical exclusion of members of one sex from a public educational institution or program would be met with "skeptical scrutiny" under the Constitution. The Constitution requires such [Court Building] skepticism, the Court said, because, as in the VMI case, such sex-based distinctions often perpetuate harmful stereotypes. The Court indicated that there might be limited circumstances in which single-sex educational opportunities could be consistent with the Equal Protection Clause. Neither the Hogan nor the VMI opinion addressed Title IX, because that law does not apply to the admissions policies of elementary and secondary institutions.

As part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Congress added to the list of fundable innovative educational programs "Programs to provide same-gender schools and classrooms (consistent with applicable law)." The provision's sponsor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, spoke on the Senate floor about the need to avoid stereotyping children and emphasized the continued applicability of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause. Spurred by this legislation, the Department of Education issued new regulations in 2006.

The 2006 regulations generally prohibit single-sex classes and activities within co-ed schools; however, the new regulations permit these to be established under certain narrowly prescribed circumstances. These require schools to justify each class, and to demonstrate that the single-sex nature of the class or activity is substantially related to achieving one of two "important" objectives: (a) to improve educational achievement of its students, through an overall established policy to provided diverse educational opportunities; or (b) to meet the particular, identified educational needs of its students (which need is demonstrated by deficient educational attainment). In addition, participation in any single-sex class or activity has to be completely voluntary, and there must be a substantially equal co-ed option. Reliance on sex stereotypes is prohibited. Despite these express limitations, the number of single-sex public schools and single-sex classes within co-ed public schools in the U.S. has increased fairly dramatically during the last five years. A number of these are based on the erroneous notion that boys and girls learn and develop so differently that they should be educated separately and differently.

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