ACLU Seeks Investigation of Single-Sex Program Rooted In Stereotypes at Wisconsin Middle School


Robyn Shepherd, ACLU national, 212-519-7829 or 212-549-2666;
Sarah Karon, ACLU of Wisconsin, 608-469-5540;

CHICAGO – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Wisconsin on Thursday asked the federal Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education to investigate a single-sex education program at a middle school in the Somerset School District in Wisconsin.

The ACLU complaint, which followed an analysis of documents received through open records laws, contends that the program violates federal and state law by relying on harmful gender stereotypes and depriving students of equal educational opportunities merely because of their sex, and potentially by failing to ensure that participation in the single-sex classes is truly voluntary. 

“There is no solid evidence supporting the assertions about supposed differences between boys’ and girls’ brains that underlie these programs, and there is absolutely no evidence that teaching boys and girls differently leads to any educational improvements,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “It’s harmful for schools to promote these types of generalizations about boys and girls.”

The complaint was filed against Somerset Middle School in Somerset, a village in St. Croix County.

Records show that the school uses different teaching methods for boys and girls and separates the majority of its students into single-sex homerooms. It also separates boys and girls in all core subjects, as well as extracurricular activities and non-academic periods such as lunch and recess.

In addition to this being unlawful, Somerset produced no valid evidence demonstrating that sex separation or sex-differentiated teaching methods improve educational achievement or meet the program’s vague goals.

Instead, Somerset Middle School’s program promotes impermissible, overly broad stereotypes concerning the interests and abilities of boys and girls. The school presented materials outlining numerous purported differences between boys and girls, including the following claims:

·       Girls and boys are “genetically programmed” to learn differently

·       “Girls and guys notice different things (boys: motion; girls: bright colors and people)”

·       “Girls are more easily distracted than boys and prefer quiet and focus”

·       “Girls hear better”

·       “Boys are messy”

·       “Teams work for boys as boys value team affiliation above friendship”

·       “Adulthood in terms of brain development is age 22 for females and age 30 for males”

·       “Girls draw nouns. Boys draw verbs”

The program was heavily influenced by the ideas of two controversial proponents of sex-differentiated education. Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician and psychologist, has said that girls do badly under stress, so they should not be given time limits on a test; and that boys who like to read, do not enjoy contact sports and do not have many close male friends should be firmly disciplined, required to spend time with “normal males” and forced to play sports.

The Somerset School District also cited the work of author Michael Gurian, who claims:

·       Boys are better than girls in math because their bodies receive daily surges of testosterone, while girls have similar skills only “a few days per month” when they experience “increased estrogen during the menstrual cycle”

·       Boys are abstract thinkers and so are naturally skilled at subjects such as philosophy and engineering, while girls are concrete thinkers and should be given objects they can touch to learn about math and science

·       Boys should be given Nerf baseball bats with which to hit things so they can release tensions during class

These theories have been widely discredited. A recent article in the prestigious journal Science, authored by a multidisciplinary team of scientists, argued that sex segregation does not improve academic performance, but does foster stereotypes.

The ACLU demands that the OCR investigate and enforce federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on sex in schools and ensure that the sex-separation program is discontinued.

Today’s filing was the latest action in the ACLU’s national “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign, a national effort to uncover information about sex stereotypes in single-sex education programs across the country.

More information on the “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign can be found here:

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan, private organization whose more than 6,000 members support its efforts to defend the civil rights and liberties of all Wisconsin residents. For more on the ACLU of Wisconsin, visit our website, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter at @ACLUofWisconsin and @ACLUMadison.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014