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Boston University Law Review

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In September 2011 an article entitled The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling appeared in the journal Science. Unlike articles typically published in peer-reviewed journals, the primary intent in this case was not to inform the scholarly community but rather to accomplish larger political and legal ends. Co-authored by eight prominent psychologists and neuroscientists, it immediately made the front pages of national newspapers and soon took the international media by storm. From the United Kingdom to Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa, it gave rise to a global debate about the pros and cons of single-sex schooling.

As directly intended, the article has since given “scientific” legitimacy to a broad-scale attack spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with ongoing support from an organization formed by the article’s authors to promote coeducation. The “immediate” targets of that attack are certain coeducational public schools that now offer separate classes for girls and boys in core subjects. The ACLU maintains that these programs are following practices grounded in disputed theories claiming hard-wired differences between the sexes. The “ultimate” targets are the very concept of single-sex schooling and the federal regulatory amendments that have permitted the approach to gain hold.

In a series of court challenges and cease-and-desist letters sent to school districts, the ACLU has charged not only that specific policies and classroom practices violate Title IX and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but also that the revised Title IX regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 2006 are themselves unsound as a matter of law and policy. Most significantly, those revised regulations expressly afford school districts flexibility in creating separate classes in coed schools. Tangled up in the ACLU’s claims and the consequent litigation are two landmark decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court: Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision striking down racially segregated public schools, and United States v. Virginia, the 1996 ruling declaring unconstitutional the exclusion of women from the state-supported Virginia Military Institute. The arguments advanced in the Science article and ACLU documents and press releases are now shaping the debate on single-sex schooling across the globe, with serious implications for education policy, especially in the United States.

This Article uses the ACLU challenges, together with the Science article, as a framework for examining the forces and motives that initially inspired and continue to derail the current revival of single-sex programs; the rights and wrongs that animate the ongoing controversy; and the measures needed to set the discussion on a track that is ideologically neutral, legally and empirically sound, and globally relevant. In the process, it analyzes a sample of studies commonly invoked by opponents, as well as other findings refuting those arguments, and weighs the cultural, political, and economic factors that may affect outcomes among different student populations, both in the United States and abroad. Overall, it presents a nuanced argument that denounces hard-wired biological justifications for separating students by sex while offering social rationales and research evidence supporting the benefits that some students gain from evenhandedly designed programs that comply with the law. In the end, it offers a transnational perspective that underscores the many complexities underlying claims about the “end of men” and the “rise of women.”



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