At Middleton Heights Elementary School in rural southwestern Idaho, teacher Robin Gilbert has become a cause célèbre for leading gender-segregated instruction in reading. Although Gilbert is not a health or sexuality instructor, her initiative has bolstered arguments on all sides of the national debate over the rationale for separating boys from girls. Sexuality educators are key stakeholders in this debate because the decision to segregate by gender – for any educational topic – sends powerful messages to young learners about the meaning of gender in society.
In Idaho, Gilbert’s elementary school stands out because it is the only known public school in the state to segregate learners by gender. Elsewhere in the U.S., Gilbert might not attract any special attention: since policy changes at the federal Department of Education in 2006, at least 500 public schools nationwide are estimated to segregate some classrooms by gender. Prior to 2006, when federal policies affecting states on equality of educational opportunity favored co-education, fewer than a dozen public schools were known to segregate.
Following Gilbert’s observations that boys at Middleton Heights were struggling with reading skills, the school piloted gender-segregated classrooms and based this decision on research provided by the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE). The advocacy organization believes that public schools should offer both co-ed and gender-segregated instruction across as many topics as possible.
Within a short time, divergent worlds evolved in boys’ and girls’ classrooms. Teachers’ microphones were set at different levels depending on the gender of the learners. Test prep began to take on contrasting qualities: boys were encouraged to engage in activities such as running, while girls were given opportunities to practice yoga. As the Associated Press reported, students “learn the same curriculum, they still lunch and play at recess together, but the differences in their learning environments are apparent, from the blue chalkboards in the boy classrooms, to the red paper hearts that decorated the wall of one of the girls’ classrooms.”
News coverage of the Middleton Heights experience says that gender segregation has “proved so popular that single-sex classes have expanded throughout the school [and that] parents can opt out, a choice required by law, if they want their kids in a traditional coed classroom.”
Popular practices are not necessarily evidence-based practices, however. Diane F. Halpern, a former president of the American Psychological Association, co-authored a review of studies last fall in the journal Science and concluded that pedagogical research does not support gender segregation. A recent SIECUS Research Update reinforces those conclusions.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been leading an effort to challenge gender segregation in several states, arguing that efforts to divide classrooms into binary “boy” and “girl” worlds ultimately violate the rights of learners across the gender spectrum. Their “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign was launched in 2012 to defend co-educational classrooms in public schools.
 “More Public Schools Splitting Up Boys, Girls,” Idaho Press-Tribune, 9 July 2012, accessed 13 August 2012, <http://www.idahopress.com/news/local/more-public-schools-splitting-up-boys-girls/article_dc73c2c0-c984-11e1-86a9-001a4bcf887a.html>.
 “More Public Schools…”
 Diane F. Halpern, et al., “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” Science, Vol. 333 no. 6050 pp. 1706-1707, 23 September 2011, accessed 13August 2012, <http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6050/1706>.
 SIECUS Research Update, “Co-Educational Learning Environments Improve Learning, Are Gender-Transformative,” 1 May 2012, accessed 15 August 2012, <http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Feature.showFeature&featureid=2172&pageid=682&parentid=478>.
American Civil Liberties Union press release, “ACLU Launches ‘Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes’ Campaign Against Single-Sex Classes Rooted in Stereotypes,” 21 May 2012, accessed 15 August 2012, <http://www.aclu.org/womens-rights/aclu-launches-teach-kids-not-stereotypes-campaign-against-single-sex-classes-rooted>.