A bill submitted by state Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, this session that would seemingly make it easier for schools to have single-gender classes, was killed Tuesday ”“ and rightfully so.

Federal law, particularly the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution as well as Title IX, prohibits limiting classes in public schools by gender ”“ even if it’s a choice. If Tuttle’s bill had been approved, schools around the state would be misled into thinking it’s easier than it really is to create single-gender classes, and they could have ended up facing legal action. 

Tuttle said he was first approached about the subject by Sanford Superintendent of Schools David Theoharides. The Sanford School Department ceased holding single-gender classes at Willard School last year after hearing from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine that the girls-only and boys-only fifth- and sixth-grade classes were operating in violation of federal law.

Although the program in Sanford, and others like it, aim to help students, it has not been scientifically proven that children learn in markedly different ways along the lines of gender. Studies have shown that there are not major differences between children’s brains beyond the larger volume of boys’ brains and the earlier completion of girls’ brain growth, according to neuroscientists’ research cited in the article “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” published in the journal Science.

Two components of the Willard School classes that the ACLU highlighted were activities that seem to stereotype the students by gender. In one of the girls’ classes, the students sat in a circle, sipping hot cocoa and discussing current events, while in the boys’ class, they got extra physical activity through a program called the “NFL Experience,” according to the ACLU.

Stereotypes, unfortunately, are ingrained in adults, and should not be forced upon children ”“ especially in public schools ”“ regardless of the teacher or school administration’s intent. The fact is that a person’s beliefs and experience impact the way they work ”“ including teachers. And while a teacher giving a girls-only class an assignment, for example, to write about their dream wedding dress may seem like a benign task, it’s reinforcing gender stereotypes and the idea that women have a clear and defined role that is different from that of men.

Many girls enjoy playing and watching sports, while boys can also enjoy playing with dolls ”“ or writing about their dream wedding. As adults, separating the activities in which boys and girls participate can limit and define their future.

One study by psychology professors published in the Journal of Social Issues showed that a parent’s perception of their child’s competence in math has been found to be influenced by gender, independent of the child’s performance in math.

Another study showed that girls’ interest in STEM subjects ”“ science, technology, engineering and math ”“ decreases with age. According to the Girls Scouts of the USA, the percentage of girls who say they would not study math anymore, given the choice, increases from 9 percent of fourth-graders to 50 percent of 12th-graders.

Messages about what girls “can” do are all around them, and have been shown to be reinforced in single-gender classrooms, regardless of whether a teacher means to do so or not.

In the article in Science, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” the authors wrote, “Research has demonstrated that, when environments label individuals and segregate along some characteristics (e.g., gender, eye color, or randomly assigned T-shirt groups), children infer that the groups differ in important ways and develop increased intergroup biases. Such effects have been shown explicitly for gender, even within co-educational classes.”

Single-gender classrooms, although optional, also complicate issues for transgender youth, who may be questioning their identity. At a public hearing for the bill earlier this month, Kate Knox, a legislative consultant for Equality Maine, wrote in her testimony that students who are transgender may be placed in a class that matches their sex at birth, but not the sex with which they identify. She went on to say, “This bill would place an additional obstacle before these vulnerable young people.”

Girls and boys need the same opportunities to learn and the same freedom to define their own future. We’ve come a long way from the days when girls took home economics classes while boys took shop, and were told women can be secretaries and nurses, while men can be CEOs and doctors. It would be detrimental to regress in the progress we have made, and even with the best intentions, separating the sexes does cause such setbacks.

The Legislature’s education committee made the right decision Tuesday to kill this bill, which will protect Maine school districts from lawsuits and each student’s right to an equitable and quality public education.

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Today’s editorial was written by City Editor Robyn Burnham on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski by calling 282-1535, Ext. 322, or via email at [email protected].