Why is the ACLU bullying public schools?

Here’s a little quiz for you.  It’s multiple choice.

Who is best qualified to say how a boy in West Virginia should be educated? 

 A)    The boy’s parents

B)    The boy’s teachers

C)    Attorneys who have never met the boy, but who work for an organization with national headquarters in Manhattan

If you answered (A) or (B), you’d be wrong.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the correct answer is (C).

Here’s the story. Back in the summer of 2009, I led a two-day workshop for 6th-grade teachers at Van Devender Middle School in Parkersburg WV. I shared with them some of the strategies I have learned from my visits to more than 300 schools over 12 years. I showed them how other teachers have used an all-boys classroom format to make it cool for a boy to study, so that the same boy who loves Call of Dutywill love Jane Eyre. After my visit, the 6th grade teachers spent the 2009-2010 school year preparing for the single-gender format.  They realized that the all-boys format doesn’t magically accomplish anything by itself; but it does create the opportunity to teach differently.  The single-gender program launched in the fall of 2010.

By any rational standard the program has been a success. Mackenzie Lackey, one of those 6th-grade teachers at Van Devender, has a gift for deploying these gender-specific strategies successfully.  It’s become all too common across the United States for boys to regard reading a book as uncool and unmasculine. But not in Ms. Lackey’s 6th-grade class.  As I had recommended, Ms. Lackey divided the boys into teams, teams which then competed against each other in “battle of the books”.

Team competition motivates boys more reliably and more consistently than individual competition; that’s not true for girls, unless the girl’s teammates are also her friends.  Girls don’t like to beat their friends if their friends are on opposing teams. But if Jason and Justin are on opposing teams, they will happily bash each other, and become better friends in the process.

The 7th-graders and the 8th-graders at Van Devender also participated in Battle of the Books, but without the single-gender teams or the training. The result:  Mackenzie Lackey’s 6th-grade boys beat the entire school, including the 7th-graders and the 8th-graders. And they demanded more books to read in their spare time. Imagine that: West Virginia boys from a low-income neighborhood who demanded more books to read.

This year Ms. Lackey did it again.  In the 2011-2012 school year just ended, once again her 6th-grade boys are school champions.  Two years in a row, with two different classes.  That can’t be a fluke. Ms. Lackey herself is convinced that the single-gender format, and the all-boys team competition, was key to her success.

You’d think that most people would applaud teachers like Mackenzie Lackey and the single-gender format she has used to boost these boys’ engagement with reading. But you’d be wrong.

On May 22, the ACLU demanded that Van Devender Middle School shut down the single-gender program, and abandon the gender-specific strategies that have worked so well over the past two years.  That same day, they issued a similar demand to other West Virginia schools offering single-gender programs, as well as to public schools in Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Maine, and Florida. The ACLU web page describing their national campaign against single-gender classrooms, https://www.aclu.org/blog/womens-rights/teach-kids-not-stereotypes, has a large black-and-white photo depicting girls from perhaps a century ago sitting at sewing machines, in an all-girls classroom.  The implication is that advocates of single-gender choice in public schools are trying to go back to the bad old days when all girls were trained as homemakers.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, but the ACLU is not interested in the truth.

The ACLU is driven not by data but by their own agenda, built around a narrative in which they are the heirs of Dr. Martin Luther King while I am cast in the role of a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. (Yes, they mention me by name, but I don’t recognize the “Leonard Sax” they describe – sounds more like Rush Limbaugh.) The ACLU claims that offering single-gender classrooms and gender-specific teaching strategies is discrimination, no different from the segregation of the Jim Crow South. The ACLU is giving schools in each state only a few weeks either to dissolve their programs or face legal action, including formal complaints and federal lawsuits.

The ACLU would probably lose most such suits, if the cases ever came to trial. When ACLU attorneys brought a federal lawsuit against the school district in Breckinridge Kentucky, the federal court ruled against them. Federal judge Charles Simpson last summer rejected the ACLU’s claim that offering parents the choice of single-gender classrooms is comparable to the forced segregation in the South before 1954.

But the ACLU is betting that they won’t have to go to trial.  Just like the bully who thinks he can get what he wants by being nasty but without having to actually fight, the ACLU hopes that public schools will give up their single-gender programs without going to court.

Unfortunately, the ACLU may be right. These are not boom times. Schools and districts are having to cut back. The money to defend schools against the ACLU in many of these states may just not be there. No matter how successful the single-gender programs might be, no district can justify laying off teachers in order to pay attorneys to battle the ACLU.

Many American public schools are doing poorly.  When a public school serving a diverse neighborhood has found a strategy that works, we should support that school – not allow bullies with a political agenda to dictate how teachers should teach.

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