Not so fast

March 19, 2004

WATCH THE pendulum swing: For three decades, co-education has been the rule to prevent discrimination based on gender. But this month, as anticipated, the U.S. Department of Education has proposed regulations clearing the way for public all-boys and all-girls classes and schools.

As long as participation is voluntary, school districts are "evenhanded" in offering "substantially equal" co-ed or single-gender programs for boys and girls, and districts cite an educational benefit or school choice rationale for segregating by gender -- it would be legal.

We've come a long way, baby -- far from when "separate but equal" education was anything but equal -- and there's no going back.

The question today is whether single-gender schooling can be used selectively as an educational reform without compromising hard-won equal rights.

We hope it can, recognizing that the answer will depend on how carefully the administration structures the license it intends to extend to school districts, and how judiciously they apply it.

The problem is a lack of definitive research on the effectiveness of single-gender education. Some studies and anecdotal evidence report improved achievement when poor and at-risk boys and girls are taught separately. Other research notes that simply dividing the genders is not a solution without proper teacher training and tailored curricula; it yields no gains that cannot be reproduced in co-ed classes with high-quality instruction, ample resources and involved parents.

Yet among a generation raised under Title IX protections are many today who favor separation when it accommodates their child's needs, whether dealing with young boys' active learning styles or older girls' assertiveness in math and science classes. Many are simply fed up with culture- and hormone-driven social precocity and want to reduce the distractions.

As currently worded, the Department of Education's just-proposed regulations deliberately offer few prescriptions. It'll be up to states and school districts to define, somewhat by trial and error, the scenarios in which community preference or educational needs justify gender separation -- under the watch of the department's Office for Civil Rights.

In the parlance of No Child Left Behind Act policy, this is called "flexibility." But too much flexibility in this arena could produce an oversight nightmare. Regulation that alters definitions of equal rights essential in a democratic society demands the highest level of federal stewardship, enforcement and public accountability.

The department wisely has commissioned a study, due out in 2006, intended to help refine what Americans know vs. what they assume about the effects on student performance. That's a start, but there's more to be done:

Regular federal compliance reviews of newly segregated classes and schools should be required, not just periodic local reviews, as proposed. Annual state and national progress reports on the implementation of the new Title IX guidelines should be required, so the public can evaluate whether patterns supporting equality are established. Also, if community and parental preferences are to be considered acceptable rationale for gender segregation, the regulations should explicitly cite the border between religious and public education.

To be accountable, the administration must ensure that the pendulum does not swing back too far, erratically, or in vain.

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