The XX Factor

College Talk vs. “Girl Talk” at a Texas Elementary School 

Get excited for “GIRL TALK”!

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

While 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was being arrested for bringing a clock to his Irving, Texas, high school, a much smaller but still telling school controversy was erupting in another Dallas suburb, this time Plano, Texas. Last week, parents at Borchardt Elementary School were up in arms after receiving an email explaining that fourth- and fifth-grade students would be separated by gender for their monthly guidance counseling class. Boys would attend a class on going to college and the importance of a career, whereas girls would have “girl talk” about friendship and confidence—and whether they had too much of the latter. 

Here is a screenshot from the newsletter via WFAA:


The school sent out a follow-up email that didn’t clarify much. “Girls and boys in these grades will take part in guidance lessons separately, but both groups will cover the same topics,” principal Jodi Davis wrote. “Lessons may be slightly staggered in the timing of their delivery, but all students will have the same exposure to the same guidance curriculum during the course of the year.” But if the boys and girls are getting the same lessons, what’s the point of segregating them? 

As a 2011 paper published in Science found, sex segregation in public schools doesn’t improve education outcomes but it does—no big surprise here—result in retrograde gender stereotypes being pushed on kids. Sexist beliefs, particularly the belief that girls are bad at math and higher-level thinking, are more prominent in kids who are subject to this form of education. 

American Civil Liberties Union research found that the vague differences in learning styles between girls and boys are often interpreted in sexist ways. Educators are instructed that girls are small thinkers while boys are more capable of handle abstract concepts like “pure” math. Boys are encouraged to be competitive, while girls are discouraged from it. One example the ACLU found is telling:

Committee meeting notes of a community working group for single-sex programs in secondary schools in Pennsylvania documented a desire among the participants to ensure that students would experience “male-hood and female-hood defined space” exhibiting characteristics of “warrior, protector, and provider” for boys and giving girls “space/time to explore things that young women like [including] writing, applying and doing make-up & hair, art.”

Proponents of sex-segregated public education often make a separate-but-equal claim, but when you dig in, it’s really about putting limits on girls’ ambitions and talents. That’s why it’s not enough for a school to hand-wave about how they’ll eventually get around to that college talk with the girls.