Experimenting with gender segregation

Guest post by Eric Muller
Cross posted at Is That Legal?

My reaction to this article about an experiment in single-sex education in all core classes at a local middle school was mostly "hmmm ... interesting ... maybe a little troubling ... but interesting ..." until I got to this stunner:

All [the teacher originating the idea] knew was that she intended to retire next year after 31 years and was running out of time to test her theory [that 7th graders would learn better without the "daily drama" of interaction between the sexes].

But she and her colleagues didn't tell the superintendent or the school board, choosing to notify parents of the experiment in letters sent home Jan. 6, a Friday. They assured parents that the experiment would last a few months at most.

"We didn't want to run the risk of someone saying, 'No, no, no,' " Works said.
- N&O: School separates girls, boys, 2/22/06

Excuse me? Teachers at a middle school decide to run a controversial and potentially unconstitutional experiment in student segregation without notifying the school board or the district's administration?

And now it's 6 weeks later and the administration and the board have just let the "experiment" move forward?

This is how "experiments"--indeed, potentially illegal ones--happen in the Chapel Hill public schools?

What is the design of this "experiment?' What is its hypothesis? Is there a control group? What procedures are in place to test whether it's working? What would "working" even mean?

Is this the way this school district investigates major changes in policy?

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro district should stop this experiment immediately--if for none of the good and valid reasons, then at least to avoid a lawsuit.



If it isn't against school or system policy (and I'm not sayin it ain't), why shouldn't teachers get to decide how to run their classrooms? It seems to me that a classroom experiment designed by teachers is ideal for testing an idea -- the scale is small, and teachers are the education decisionmakers least driven by political fears and ambitions. Hearing that the scheme is the work of experienced educators makes me more, not less, comfortable with it.

Besides, if the experiment is unconstitutional, having it signed off on by a principal or a school board doesn't make it any less so. (And it is an experiment; not an "experiment.") It just makes any change less likely to occur. Nobody wants their kids experimented on, which is one reason public education is perpetually behind the times. One key pathway by which positive changes reach the schoolroom is the efforts of teachers --professionals -- who care about teaching. Those teachers deserve a little faith.

Maybe next they could experiment with age segregation...

I like the idea of experimentation, but it should be informed. I understand the reluctance to inform: nothing interesting will ever happen. And I also appreciate the potential risks of unsupervised experimentation. It's no wonder so many school teachers are fed up with the bureaucracies they labor under.

But I mostly like the idea of an option for public schooling that's gender segregated.

Well, Mark, they already experiment with IQ segregation in elementary school, but I don't think that's unconstitutional (though it should be) ... oops, boring...

The school system has laywers. Surely, they must have something to say about the McDougle experiment (which I personally don't object to).

I think the most troubling part of this is that it's based on (from the N.C. law books) the "separate and equal" idea.

What constitutes an experiment? A theory/hypothesis, a protocol, and a measurable result. This "experiment" does not meet the criteria. The 7th grade teachers theorize that their students will perform better (and annoy them less) if segregated by gender. They're probably right, but they won't prove anything.

Curious that they decided to mobilize under the radar.

Teacher research is not the same as experimental designs that most people are familiar with. Teacher research is the field of education's attempt to connect teachers' experience with educational theory. It needs to be understood in the context of the small number of 'subjects' available for the research, ethical considerations, and the practicality of doing research within a classroom where the presence of an outside researcher would change the dynamics by their group. If we want to improve the way our schools operate, we really need teachers to be researches and we should not hold them to the same expectations that we would hold a medical researcher.

"Teachers are subjective insiders involved in classroom instruction as they go about their daily routines of instructing students, grading papers, taking attendance, evaluating their performance as well as looking at the curriculum. Traditional educational researchers who develop questions and design studies around those questions and conduct research within the schools are considered objective outside observers of classroom interaction. But when teachers become teacher-researchers, the "traditional descriptions of both teachers and researchers change. Teacher-researchers raise questions about what they think and observe about their teaching and their students' learning. They collect student work in order to evaluate performance, but they also see student work as data to analyze in order to examine the teaching and learning that produced it" (p. x)."

To learn more about teacher research, see:

FWIW, the UNC-CH School of Education has an entire masters degree for experienced teachers designed around the concept of teacher researcher.

The issue from the newspaper article on this topic that most disturbs me is not that a few teachers are doing this research in their classrooms, but the fact that the district is considering institutionalizing this research by implementing it as another school. Teacher research is informal, it's intent is to improve personal practice in a way that may be useful to other practitioners; institutionalization should require more formal evidence.

Thanks for that explanation Terri.

Do you understand exactly what a "model" school is--i.e. "First School"? Should "model" school attendance be optional or is mandatory attendance legal?

I was interested, too, that the experiment involves gender segregation in all core courses. My familiarity with the research on gender in education does not extend beyond what I read occasionally in the NYTimes, but I thought the evidence suggested that segregation at this age improved performance (especially girls' performance) in math and science. Does anyone know whether there's evidence that kids do better in single-sex classes in social studies and English?

Eric, I agree it is troubling that the administration and school board were not consulted.

Could you elaborate (briefly) on the Constitutional question? If I recall the standard is that the government must show a strong governmental interest in policies that discrimate by gender and there is some sort of requirement that the solution closely fit the problem as I recall. Seems like this exact issue must have been litigated already. Do you know off the top of your head?


Most of my reading in this area has been on girls on technology. But the research is pretty broad although like you say the most play in the popular press focuses on girls and science and math performance. Outside the popular press, there is also a good bit on socialization, like the McDougle teachers are working with. It's become a fairly hot topic among some conservatives.

I don't support segregation by race or gender so I can't defend any of this except the right of teachers to do research on their own practice. And even though I believe teacher research is a foundation of professional practice, I do think this teacher should have consulted with parents before proceeding. I just hope the kids are participating as researchers into their own social interactions and that once the experiment is over, they are more cognizant of the social/sexual tension present among adolescents in mixed gender environments.

Under existing constitutional law, Mark, the school district would have to persuade a court that it has an "exceedingly persuasive justification" for a program that separates the sexes, and it would also have to show that the two programs are in all significant respects equal. What constitutes an "exceedingly persuasive justification" is, as you'd probably guess, pretty unsettled.

(This is the law since the Supremes struck down single-sex education at the Virginia Military Institute a few years back.)

I'm pretty confident, though, that getting rid of the "drama" of adolescent interpersonal/sexual relationships would not meet the standard, at least without considerable documentation.

(And this is not even to mention the "dramas" that are in fact created within all-boy and all-girls groups by such a program, or the not-inconsiderable impact that separation could have for gay or bisexual people--a factor that is likely not considered in the current McDougle plan.)

I am not sure how I feel generally about gender-segregated education, but I definitely dislike the whole "boys and girls distract each other" argument--as someone who was equally distracted by both in middle school. And, in relation to what Eric just mentioned, the whole idea has a very heterosexist underpinning--not all boys are excited by girls, or vice versa.

This whole idea is creepy. It's not bad enough that we accept institutionalizing our kids for a huge portion of their lives, keeping them indoors, and segregating them by age. Now in our generally progressive community, we are soberly discussing gender segregation and institutionalizing pre-schoolers into the system.

We are talking about systems that can smother the wilderness in our children's spirits.

This "experiment" strikes me as the kind of thing that should go before an institutional review board for, well, review. Just because parents consent to something doesn't mean it's okay to do. Keeping a study secret seems problematic as well, though I'm sympathetic to their concerns.

The study seems laden with potential risks (in a research sense). A formal review would ensure that they have considered all these risks and are collecting good and meaningful data. Does the study have a control group? Did they read relevant research before beginning this study?

I hope their observations are more than anecdotal. Teacher expectations could be influencing the study. Perhaps the teacher is getting better results from students because she is more engaged.

I just did a very quick review of articles on "single-sex classes" in ERIC, an education database. There's a bunch of research on this. Apparently Australia has been experimenting with this. Interestingly, some seem to think that segregation helps boys, other think it benefits girls. In any case, the results are mixed (from my very quick review).

Control groups work for rats; not for children. At minimum you need a sample size larger than 30. Of course teacher expectations are influencing the outcomes; there is no way around it when the researcher is the teacher. But outside researchers bias the study just as much by changing the nature of the classroom interactions.

I strongly encourage people to review the literature on teacher research. If we want to see real changes in our classrooms, then we need to support teachers efforts and at least try to understand the unique contexts in which they work. Key words to search on, other than teacher research, are field-based research, qualitative research, theory-into-practice.

Terri, control groups are appropriate for many kinds of research studies and I suspect you know that very well. Most (if not all) of medical studies require them.

I appreciate that you want to support teacher innovation, but what's best for the students (and, minors are considered a particularly high risk group in any research) is of paramount importance.

It was only a few years ago that researchers--doctors even--didn't think it was so wrong to infect African American men with syphillis to see what would happen. Our standards have changed since then--because of the kinds of reviews I've mentioned.


I can promise you one thing--she won't be getting better results becasue she is more engaged. I don't think it would be possible for Dorothy Works to BE any more engaged. The older of my two boys had Ms. Works for sixth grade LA. She is one of THE BEST teachers he has ever had--and that is saying something. That is my son's opinion as well as my own... and he is a Junior in college.



If I recall you are a student at SILS. I assume you are not in the media studies program or you would know that your expectations of educational research are simply out of date. To do the kind of research you are advocating for, you need very large sample sizes in order to generalize across all the variables that could be influencing the study variable--gender. (gender, race, SES, number of siblings, single/divorced/married parents, on and on). A classroom of 30 children simply does not provide a sample size large enough for any kind of statistical significance.

You are not the first SILS student that I've had this discussion with. They really need to provide you with a better foundation in qualitative research. George Noblitt at the School of Ed might be a good resource if you are interested in taking such a course.

BTW, in case you haven't been following medical research, there's a lot of controversy over drug trials and how they don't control for enough variables--such as gender and age. Drugs (and treatment protocols) that work for adult men don't generalize well with women and children. And those studies all had control groups.

Terri--you vying for another award?

Terri, it's a wonder the SILS faculty still bothers to teach their quaint little theories in the face of your clearly superior intellect and reasoning. Also, the Chancellor just called to say he's going back to Nebraska since you've probably got his job covered too.

Snide and ignorant comments notwithstanding, Terri's point about what is required for research designs to deliver clear and interpretable evidence is on the mark. Most folks just don't have enough of the appropriate background to offer more than a sincere, but uninformed, opinion. There is no crime in this; the demands of providing real evidence on complex problems are stiff and not everyone has had enough formal exposure to these issues.

For my money, Dorothy Works is one of the most exceptional teachers I have seen in this or the other two school systems where my children have been educated. That is measured against 45 collective years of classes. I would trust her views on this issue. Some of the commentary here seems way over the top. Get a grip.....

Poor Terri, we love you, really we do... just go easier on us dumb folk...

Gender segregation has its merits, as most of us seem to agree. Terri argues effectively for teacher research as an academic pursuit; I'd still like to see this experiment show some results, moving it out of the realm of soft science.

Sometime soon, I hope, we'll see a strong push for school uniforms.

Along with school uniforms, I'd like to see shaved heads be a requirement.

Please forgive my horribly exegrious act of challenging an uninformed perspective on educational research. It was clearly a violation of right speech.

What is the sample size of the SILS students that you interviewed to reach your penetrating insight into the teaching and research methods of the School? What well-tested interview techniques did you use? What instruments and what standards?
UNC's School of Information and Library Science is the top rated School in the US according to several measures and we are regularly recognized both within our field and in such popular publications as US News and World Report as the best.
It wouldn't taken much research, only a little inquiry, to challenge your completely silly attack on both Joan and the School.
You should stick to something that you know and understand in your criticisms. We'll all be better for it.


I did not attack SILS. I have great respect for all the faculty and students I have worked with from SILS. My "attack" was on Joan's uninformed criticism of teacher research. Teachers have a hard enough time on their jobs. As the field of education strives to professionalize teaching with methods such as teacher research, we don't need people holding us to hard science research methods.

It's great that you are so true to your school, Paul.


"You are not the first SILS student that I've had this discussion with. They really need to provide you with a better foundation in qualitative research."
You need to read your own posts.

Or maybe Terri could read her posts before she posts them...

I'll second what RobertC said. If Dorothy had tried this when my kids was in her class, I'd have backed her. Because "her kids" are important to her, she's an excellent teacher, and if she thought it was a good idea, it was worth a try. Also--it's NOT going to hurt the kids.

You know--there are all sorts of "experiments" in teaching that cause real harm. "New Math" comes to mind...There are a quite a few of us who were sacrificed on THAT alter.(Yes, I'm mixing my metaphors.)


I tend to have a knee-jerk hostility to segregation by gender. But I'm a little surprised by the invocation of concern for gay and lesbian feelings as a justification for disparaging this 'experiment'. Putting aside poking holes in this experiment, does anyone regard contemporary public schools as a healthy place to explore one's sexuality? As I recall, if you cannot make yourself attractive to the 'opposite sex' (typically involving both inherited attributes and consumer goods mom and dad purchase for you), you are a 'loser'. Any same sex attractions, let alone encounters, must be kept secret. Most American schools have institutions like cheerleading and prom kings and queens to officially sanctify these hierarchies. Perhaps it is not the attraction, but the constant invocation of these hierarchies (in my memory, very constant) that is 'distracting'. By contrast, there is considerable anecdotal evidence that in most same sex institutions (nunneries, armies, or, more relevantly, boys' and girls' schools) same sex encounters are pervasive (without participants automatically identifying themselves as 'gay'--but perhaps that's a good thing?), and hierarchies are not necessarilly identical to those produced by heterosexual society and its culture. Although it certainly is not the point of the experiment, such classrooms may well provide a reprieve to the 'losers', and a moment when those who are attractive to the 'opposite sex' do not find themselves vindicated at the top of the social hierarchy. I have similar mixed feelings about uniforms. Uniforms aren't exactly threatening to replace 'individuality' as the dress code. They are challenging the colonization of the public school by the corporate ethos (for which the 'popular kids' act as the shock troops) and its intensely heterosexist culture. The problem, ultimately, is that our children are already smothered by consumer culture (way back into 'pre-school'). Can the schools provide some kind of alternative space?


Would uniforms do more to combat the corporate colonization of public education than actual education about corporate colonization?

An obvious hurdle to educating about corporate colonozation is that the public education system was designed and implemented by the great Captains of Industry in the early 20th century in order to support their vision of society.

Should read "if Dorothy had tried this when my kid was in her class..." My finger must have hit the "s" and the "d" at the same time. Clearly my proofing needs work as well as my typing...


Mark--I think practically any education would do a lot to combat the corporate colonization of schooling. At this point students are increasingly expected to get a graduate degree (approximately 18 years of schooling) before getting a 'good' job, the vast majority of which could be handled with about one year of training, presuming the trainee has decent reading comprehension skills (but corporate employers are probably justified in believing that even college graduates have not yet acquired those skills). Besides jobs skills, most American college graduates (let alone high school), I think its fair to say, know virtually nothing about history or culture (in any senses of that word). More and more years in school, less and less actually learned.

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to your critiques of schooling, although there is still the question of how to combat the reality that different parents bequeath to their kids dramatically different amounts of cultural capital.

What I am skeptical of is the pretense that the present system represents some sort of intelligent system, and that any attempt to tweak it represents some horrible impingment on the freedoms of the students. I don't think adding a few rules and expectations into the mix is going to traumatize students or kill their creativity, to be honest. We're talking about one teacher's classroom experiment, after all.


I agree with your response. That's a reasonable perspective. And reasonable skepticism that "the present system represents some sort of intelligent system" that should be sacrosanct when it comes to experimentation.

A McDougle Middle School parent told me of a rumor that the gender segregation plan was hurriedly implemented at least in part in response to an episode (or multiple episodes) of oral sex in the school's bathrooms. (Girl-on-boy oral sex, to be specific.) (This "oral-sex-in-the-middle-schools" thing sounds like an urban legend to me -- certainly it's nothing like my own days back at Beck Middle School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey -- but some say that oral sex by early teenage girls on early teenage boys really is something of a craze these days. See also here.)

Mind you, this is a rumor. The parent to whom I spoke had no first-hand knowledge to support it. But it is apparently a story that is circulating among at least some parents at McDougle.

If there's anything to the story, and the school is using gender segregation in core classes as a way to combat oral sex in bathrooms, this would be, to my mind, a big strike against the wisdom of the experiment.

You know what I heard? I heard that we never landed on the moon! Really--it was all filmed in the desert!

Honestly. If the reason they were separating the kids was to keep them from "interacting" in the bathrooms, don't you think they'd separate them at lunch and electives as well? They aren't.

I wonder at that parent's motivation for spreading that particular rumor. And I wonder at YOUR motivation for repeating it. Merely adding a disclaimer that " this is just a rumor" doesn't excuse you.

Why is it so hard to believe that the teachers are trying this for the reasons they've stated?

Get out of here. In the desert? Really?

My motivation for repeating it? The parent to whom I spoke reported this to me as a widely circulating theory among parents at McDougle, and the parent seemed to me quite confident that there was something to it--some basis in fact. The parent suggested that the suddenness with which the program was announced suggested to some parents that it was responsive to a particular incident or set of incidents. And this parent is a very straight shooter. (And, I should also note, supportive of the gender segregation experiment as well.)

(It occurs to me, now that I think of it, that a neighbor of mine told me about similar goings-on at a Chapel Hill middle school 4 or 5 years ago when the neighbor's daughter was of the relevant age. I had forgotten about it until just now.)

You're right, of course, that the response of segregating kids only for core courses would not prevent the behavior in question. But I have seen institutions respond to problems in less-than-fully-rational ways before. Often.

The 'rumor' was probably incidental to the 'experiment', but
I believe the rumors are true. I have heard the same 'rumors' coming out of Smith. In fact, I've heard the same rumors coming out of a local movie theater.

When I first heard the Smith 'rumors' last year, I questioned my sister who teaches at a public middle school in Richmond, Va. She assures me that the oral sex 'problem' is pervasive and real.

Seems our 'comprehensive' sex ed. is missing some of the finer points...

Hey--I'm not denying that there may be inappropriate sexual stuff going on at the school--I've heard the same thing from the kids--I just don't believe that the gender separation thing is in response to inapropropriate sexual behavior.

Maybe lessons in respect for the flag would help, too.......

Wait a minute. Doesn't the school have gender-designated bathrooms? Surely the kids aren't mixing it up in the john. If that's the case, a hall monitor would solve the problem.

I think the sudden nature of the "experiment" has mostly to do with Ms. Works's desire to punctuate her retirement with a statement. I admire her for that.

Lessons in respect for the flag = discipline. Teach the pledge of allegiance, a short reminder of lucky circumstances. The words "under God" have come under fire in the interest of political correctness, but the rest of it has legs.

Returning to to the subject of school uniforms, which I believe is pertinent to this gender segregation thread, most opponents complain that uniforms are expensive and limit self-expression. To this I say from experience, uniforms are inexpensive and give rise to self-expression

I'm okay with uniforms as long as there is an American flag on them (and a Nike swoosh). And I guess zippers with alarms on them might be a good idea.


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