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Judge stops W. Va. single-sex classes: Were they a success or pseudoscience?

A federal judge prevented a West Virginia public school from proceeding with its single-sex classes, saying parents didn't get a fair chance to withdraw their kids. But the question of whether single-sex classes work or are built on unhelpful gender stereotypes gathers pace. 

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Dillon Elledge, 8, (r.) and Brody Kemble, 7, work with flash cards in their all-boys classroom at Middleton Heights Elementary in Middleton, Idaho, in May. Middleton is believed to be the only public school in Idaho offering all-boy and all-girl classrooms, though the movement is widespread in other states and is now being targeted by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Jessie L. Bonner/AP/File

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Separate classes for girls and boys at Van Devender Middle School in Parkersburg, W. Va., have to be reorganized into coed classes by Monday, a federal judge ruled this week.

The injunction comes after a mother and her daughters, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleged that the school was using pseudoscience and gender stereotypes to teach boys and girls, and that the different methods harmed them academically and violated their civil rights.

One of the girls, diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, alleges she was frequently reprimanded for not sitting still, while boys were encouraged to move about their classroom. Another, legally blind, alleges the lights were not bright enough in her classroom because the teachers have been told that girls respond better to a different kind of light.

Wood County district officials deny the allegations, and one single-sex education expert who testified on behalf of the school agrees, saying she thought the approaches in the classroom were thoughtful, rather than based on stereotypes. 

But as a tiny but growing number of public schools – about 1,000 by one estimate – offer full programs or individual classes for boys and girls in separate settings, the Van Devender case highlights the debate about whether such programs are important experiments in closing achievement gaps or a reinforcement of troubling gender stereotypes.

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