Sexless Ed

The resolution single-gender classrooms would improve the quality of education in American public schools is absurd on-face — it semantically relies on the false gender binary to avoid the frighteningly ambivalent word “sex” that notoriously swings both ways: noun and verb. But if the wording of the topic is (flatly) wrong, what is it supposed to be about?


Al Jazeera provides the context for this debate:

Single-sex education in public schools came about with the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act. The U.S. Department of Education in 2006 rolled back a portion of Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in public education and guarantees equal federal funding for boys and girls across all education-related activities, in order to allow single-sex public schools and classrooms. … However, enrollment in single-sex education must be entirely voluntary, and school districts need to prove that there’s a compelling educational reason for creating a single-sex classroom or school.

And the National Education Association confirms the inept conflation of sex and gender into a biological binary when they write: “Single-gender education and the often-spirited dialogue surrounding it have raised a number of issues concerning the best manner to educate boys and girls.”

So that’s the real core issue: If a unisex classroom can improve the quality of education, then a public school district can create one under No Child Left Behind. That’s both what and why we’re debating today.

Now, to be fair, Al Jazeera was providing context because…

In their study, which appeared Monday [Feb 3 2014] in Psychological Bulletin, a journal published by the American Psychological Association, the psychologists said that students who attended single-sex schools weren’t any better off than peers who attended coed programs in terms of self-esteem or performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.

But we’re not going to argue for splitting out the math department. We’re going to argue for splitting out History and Literature, both of which have a core interest in dead white guys with alternate points of view being merely grafted on to the core curriculum and never being able to critically engage the patriarchal narrative that defined what the “RIGHT ANSWERS” were decades ago.

So, first, looking outside of STEM which is where we don’t see improvements… we can see improvements. In 2004, Mulholland, Hansen and Kaminski reported that

Students in Year 9 selected single-gender or coeducational classes in mathematics and English during the second half of a school year. Student scores in standardized tests and school-based assessment in these subjects were obtained before and after the establishment of the initiative. Results indicate no significant difference in mathematics achievement that can be attributed to gender or class composition. However, scores in school-based English improved for students in single-gender classes. Improvement for girls in single-gender classes was greater than that for boys in single-gender classes.

Again confusing gender with sex, but the point is that the ability to refine a curriculum based on a cultural narrative to a narrower demographic of students can-and-should increase the relevance of that curriculum to those students, thus improving the quality of the education by all normalized metrics.

And gaining control of that narrative is critical. As Jen Pozner writes in Reality Bites Back,

Representation in media is often key to our ability to feel valued and to believe that the world holds positive possibilities for people who look like us and share similar backgrounds and identities. Yet when a community’s main media presence consists of mockery, misrepresentation, or demonization, invisibility may be preferable.

And when we look at the typical Shakespeare on the curriculum featuring a suicidal Juliet, and a suicidal and insane Ophelia, and a psychotically evil and possibly suicidal Lady Macbeth, all of whose parts were originally played by boys, we can see how parts of the curriculum which are most immediately relevant to girls are also possibly sending bad messages to girls.

But this isn’t just a matter of being inclusive for the sake of inclusivity — our curriculum pays lip service to that already — or improving test scores. This is also about college preparedness. As Professor James Loewen explains in introducing Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, college history professors have to de-program the shallow patriarchal jingoism out of their students prior to any serious study of actual history. Similarly, of the over 600 women’s studies programs, generalized high school curriculum prepares exactly no students to meaningfully participate in any of them. By allowing for a possible increase in the demographic granularity of classrooms — as we already do by academic achievement — we grant our teachers greater opportunity to tailor the curriculum to match the collective educational aspirations of their students. And when working with a narrative-based curriculum, this can improve student engagement, and test scores, and sense of identity, and college preparedness.

And that’s the kind of classroom that school districts should be keenly interested in making available to students today. We’re not enforcing segregation. We’re certainly not enforcing segregation by gender. We’re sticking to the real-world opt-in policy of the United States and seeing how it can be applied for the advantage of our students. We’ve found a way, and because of this way you should vote affirmative.

Except you shouldn’t because single gender classrooms aren’t going to improve the quality of public education in the United States.


First, the resolution requires a regressive heteronormative patriarchal conflation of gender with sex into a false binary to make any sense whatsoever, with that regression coming about in 1993 thanks to — of all government departments — the FDA. More than a decade earlier, “most feminist writings had agreed on using gender only for socioculturally adapted traits.” See, even if we disregard the spectrum-nature of gender (as meant by anybody who’s actually taken a gender studies course) and limit ourselves to a mere half-dozen more-or-less distinguishable forms of gender, splitting public school classrooms based on gender — which can shift in an individual, especially one that is in the process of maturing from childhood to adulthood — would be an absurd process that would only sap time and resources away from all six classrooms. So our opponents are going to want to talk about the heteronormative patriarchal false gender binary as a basis of division, which they’ll claim will have educational advantages without noting a critical disadvantage of entrenching the lie of the heteronormative patriarchal false gender binary within codified public policy. When our schools lie to our students about who they are and who they can be, quality of education is diminished so the resolution is false not just because it’s built from bad semantics, but because even if we were to forgive those semantics for the purposes of this debate, the bad semantics would have a counterproductive impact in education as a matter of policy.

Second, latest evidence shows a lack of improvement even when we split classrooms on a false gender binary. Al Jazeera reports the findings:

The team of psychologists examined all available research on single-sex education published within the past seven years, which included 184 studies comprising 1.6 million students from kindergarten to 12th grade in 21 different countries, and found no evidence to support proponents’ claims. … In their study, which appeared Monday in Psychological Bulletin, a journal published by the American Psychological Association, the psychologists said that students who attended single-sex schools weren’t any better off than peers who attended coed programs in terms of self-esteem or performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.

So no advantage in the currently trendy subject matter. But this isn’t really news:

The American Association of University Women published Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls (1998), which notes that single-sex education is not necessarily better than coeducation. According to the report, boys and girls thrive on a good education, regardless of whether the school is single-sex or coeducational. [… And …] When elements of a good education are present—such as small classes and schools, equitable teaching practices, and focused academic curriculum—girls and boys succeed.

And that caveat — “when elements of a good education are present” — leads us to…

Third, this topic is an insult to the students and teachers that actually want to improve educational quality, because we know how to do it: more school days, not shutting down for 10 straight weeks, and actually controlling class sizes. Evidence from a wide variety of sources follows:

After several years of state and local budget cuts, thousands of school districts across the nation are gutting summer-school programs, cramming classes into four-day weeks or lopping days off the school year, even though virtually everyone involved in education agrees that American students need more instruction time. [New York Times]

Oregon students spend only about 165 days in class on average, three weeks less than the national norm. This is particularly unfair to lower-income students, who lose the most academic ground when school is out of session. It’s also unfair to teachers, who tend to lose wages when their employers balance the budget by chopping days from the calendar. [The Oregonian]

[H]aving [schools] shut down all summer critically undermines them. … The burden on parents is segmented by income, and the impact on children is as well. A 2011 RAND literature review concluded that the average student “loses” about one month’s worth of schooling during a typical summer vacation, [ed: loss amount varies by subject and is usually more in math] with the impact disproportionately concentrated among low-income students. … the impact is cumulative. Poor kids tend to start school behind their middle-class peers, and then they fall further behind each and every summer, giving teachers and principals essentially no chance of closing the gap during the school year. [Slate]

There’s no doubt that some groups of boys—particularly Hispanic and black boys and boys from low-income homes—are in real trouble. But the predominant issues for them are race and class, not gender. Closing racial and economic gaps would help poor and minority boys more than closing gender gaps, and focusing on gender gaps may distract attention from the bigger problems facing these youngsters. [Education Sector]

A reanalysis of the Tennessee STAR experiment found that small classes (15-17 pupils) in kindergarten through third grade (K-3) provide short- and long-term benefits for students, teachers, and society at large….poor, minority, and male students reap extra benefits in terms of improved test outcomes, school engagement, and reduced grade retention and dropout rates. [Achilles, C. M., et al. (2012). Class-size Policy: The Star Experiment and Related Class-size Studies. NCPEA Policy Brief, 1.2.; Source Research]

[Dynarski, Hyman, & Schanzenbach] find that assignment to a small class increases the probability of attending college by 2.7 percentage points, with effects more than twice as large among blacks. Among students enrolled in the poorest third of schools, the effect is 7.3 percentage points. Smaller classes increase the likelihood of earning a college degree by 1.6 percentage points and shift students towards high-earning fields such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), business and economics. [National Bureau of Economic Research]

We know from common sense that laying off teachers, increasing class sizes, eliminating critical programs, shortening the school week or shortening the school year all mean that our students receive less attention and fewer chances to achieve in their education… substantial evidence exists that smaller class sizes – especially in the early years – produce better outcomes for students. Yet job losses for teachers from 2008 to 2010 erased a decade’s worth of improvements in the student-teacher ratio. [The White House]

But let’s bring this all home.

Portland, Oregon, [Feb 7 2014] teachers have voted nearly unanimously to strike. … After two decades of constant cuts, Portland teachers feel stretched to the breaking point. The districts has increased the caseloads of special educators, counselors, and school psychologists, and reduced the number of arts, physical education, library, and other specialist positions. … Class sizes have increased — elementary classrooms are often 30 students or more — and classroom teachers are asked to do more with less support. … Teachers hoped the district would use the contract negotiation process as an opportunity for dialogue and collaboration with teachers. Instead, the district refused to talk about any of these issues, including class size. … “What’s going on in Portland Public Schools (PPS) has shed light on a bigger problem: that for too long, education has been underfunded by design,” said teacher Adam Sanchez during debate before the vote. “It’s time to demand that the money flows into the classroom—not to corporations, not to testing and textbook companies, not to bureaucrats and high-priced consultants.” [Labor Notes, and here’s monetary misdirection at work in Chicago]

So, to put it another way, this debate topic is just another mechanical rabbit for us to chase around the track while obvious issues like the diminishing length of the school year, the tangibly counterproductive nature of summer vacations, and uncontrolled class sizes are all undermining the quality of public education especially for the economically disadvantaged working poor in the United States. Any and every speculative claim of advantage our opponents make will be hamstrung by basic, systemic, a priori issues that school districts — as we see in Portland — are simply refusing to address. And as long as we’re debating this semantically bullshit and evidentially wrong topic, we’re not pressing on real ways to improve education.

Update: First, the good news — Portland public schools avoided a strike and added some school days (quantity unknown) back to the calendar.

Now let’s talk about what I’ve seen on this topic. There’s a common piece of evidence claiming that segregated classrooms leads to the de-gendering of subjects which is good for girls in STEM education. We’ve already got the evidence against that, but let’s look at what’s implicit in the claim: tech jobs are better jobs, and better jobs is the mark of public educational quality. This is absurd on-face: nobody becomes a rocket surgeon right out of high school, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s look at the jobs that your judges are visualizing you pursuing… and debunk them. As Jeff Hammerbacher, former research scientist for Facebook, explained: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” Alternative high-income careers for STEM education include shattering the planet to extract fossil fuels and shattering the economy to extract money. But let’s pause on that last one for a moment: The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports, in a story highlighting how America’s friendly vampire squid Goldman Sachs is recruiting engineering majors, that

Harvard Business Review [published a report] about why women are dropping out of some technical fields, “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology.” [finding] that 52 percent of highly qualified females working for science, engineering and technology companies quit because of the pressures of working in a male-dominated environment… Among the factors driving women away, according to the study, are sexual harassment on the job; isolation and lack of mentors or female support in the workplace; and a lack of clear-cut career paths for women.

That’s nuts. And we don’t want to go critiquing capitalism here, but making exploitative private industries the purpose of public education seems wrong to us. Not everything is a total downer, though — back in 2007 (when pretty much all US public schools were co-educational), the Boston Globe reported that “79 percent of the seats at the nation’s 28 veterinary schools are occupied by females [and] the number of practicing women veterinarians nationwide is equal to the number of practicing males.” Women appear to have no problem engaging with the science courses on that career path.

I’m not sure it proves anything about the quality of education, though. So let’s step back and ask: why do we have public education? Paul Graham notes that “Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens,” but since you’re likely to have a teacher as a judge I don’t recommend you mention that. PBS answers with the following list:

  • To prepare children for citizenship
  • To cultivate a skilled workforce
  • To teach cultural literacy
  • To prepare students for college
  • To help students become critical thinkers
  • To help students compete in a global marketplace

Okay, so most students are already citizens and STEM doesn’t do that, likewise cultural literacy (meaning what, exactly — watching NASCAR in class?); Oxford research finds it likely that 47% of current jobs will be automated by the time today’s babies graduate from high school — just think of the truck drivers that will be displaced by self-driving cars to start; competing in the global marketplace is a ridiculous platitude used by people who should be Cap-K’d, but liberals simply redefine it as “prepared for college” — Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that we’ve got 66% of high school graduates going on to college currently, but Reuters reports that we’ve got the worst college drop-out rate in the world at 56% (often due to the cost of it) — so it looks like our current definition of “prepared for college” is wrong and chances are that no currently existing evidence is prepared to redefine it to improve high school education. Finally, there’s helping students become critical thinkers… which is an amusing lie that has been papered over with the scan-tron sheets to show that students are either ready for the workforce or for college, epithetized in the hated phrase “teaching to the test.”

So when the claim that we can measure quality of education by test scores (because it’s easy) comes out, look at what goals those tests are supposed to support — skilled workforce and college prep — and realize that actually looking just a bit further down the chronological road, those test scores mean nothing at all: our skilled workforce will be superfluous and past college admission is no indication of future results. Higher test scores that might be produced by segregated classrooms won’t change the macro trends that are deforming our economy. (And segregated classrooms would seem likely to increase sexism in already-sexist economic enclaves, too.) Heck, in 1CX, I’d recommend that the negative pin the affirmative down on burden — “What metric are you using to define ‘quality of education’?” — and then have the 2NC spend up to a minute railing on how meaningless that metric is and how a quality education doesn’t get tied to that sort of thing.

Here to demonstrate this point for me is Nicole Sullivan, who is great and does web development (kind of like me) but also runs conferences (unlike me) and whose success has been mostly dumb luck (kind of like me) and Dance Dance Revolution (unlike me), talking about her education and career. The relevant part is from about 7:50-17:20.

So I’m well off-topic now, but off-topic is where all of the interesting stuff is anyway — and that is the most important thing you can learn and the one thing public schools can’t teach and also why the negative should always be able to win any debate.