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Magnet Schools And Cultural Understanding

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By its nature, social research carries the risk of abstracting away essential ideas and information. Such may be the case with the leaked federally sponsored research report on magnet schools whose handling apparently is being regulated by U.S. Education Department officials ("Magnets' Efficacy as Desegregation Tool Questioned,'' Feb. 2, 1994).

After poring over several evaluations of the magnet program operating in the nation's second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, my take on magnets is that while voluntary magnet programs predictably attract the best public school students from their neighborhood schools, magnets rank as one of America's best hopes for fostering cultural understanding and inclusion among the nation's diverse racial and ethnic groups.

I will attempt to explain my position with a story or two.

Many years ago, I uprooted myself from a cozy Los Angeles community to attend college on Long Island, N.Y.--out where deer-crossing signs pepper the main highway. In effect, if not by intent, I had been transplanted from a virtually all-black community (my high school was close to 100 percent black) to a virtually black-less community.

On one of my early excursions from the dorm to a local supermarket to stock up on food, I smiled "Hello'' to a nattily dressed preschooler playing on the back of his mom's shopping cart. He looked up at me and exclaimed in pop-eyed awe, "Look, Mom, a chocolate man!'' Intent on damage control, mom confronted the little guy with an index finger plastered perpendicular over her fastened lips.

I came out of that experience harboring mixed feelings. The little guy's mom had reacted to the episode as if it were a racial delicacy; but I'm convinced that the little guy's reaction was not driven by my race. He saw something that he had hardly been exposed to, at least in the flesh. Using his fledgling, yet innocent, intellectual tool kit, he had attempted a dispassionate description of the image before him. So over the past 20 years, I have internalized the little guy as one of my favorite people. But occasionally I wonder what ever happened to him. Is he still O.K.?

This experience supports the widely shared view that bigotry has no home in the genetic code of children. Unfortunately some children eventually succumb to racial discrimination. While only a small percentage of our children ever become bigots, a much larger proportion become racially insensitive or hypersensitive and their inter-racial interactions get boxed into something akin to damage-control behavior. Surely, today, too many signs of racial and ethnic misunderstanding tattoo the American body politic--signs that too often are fueled and sustained by the ignorance that comes of racial isolation.

The supermarket story suggests that an answer (perhaps the answer) to the race issue lies with children. Children's psyches are sufficiently open that their lives could be greatly enriched by opportunities to mix with other children from all walks of life and from different neighborhoods. Children of different races or ethnic groups should not be deprived of opportunities to play together, compete together, eat together, argue with each other, or to love another. If a child experiences unfettered multiracial and multiethnic interactions, the adult he becomes will probably be better equipped to protect his thinking from racial impertinences.

Mandates clearly have their place, but in the long haul I believe voluntary approaches offer the best vehicle for providing children with opportunities for multiracial and multiethnic cultural enrichment.

This brings me back to a story about the magnet program in Los Angeles. Circa 1980, the Los Angeles Unified School District began implementing a variety of programs designed to alleviate the effects of racial isolation. One of these programs was "schools of choice,'' or magnet schools and centers. Ostensibly this program created attractive, specialized learning situations that parents of all races or ethnic groups (Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, African-American, white) would predictably opt to enroll their children in. Since the number of spaces in magnet schools would be limited (currently about 5 percent of total enrollment), student participation would be decided by lottery from among those who took the initiative to apply.

A comparison of the racial/ethnic distribution of students participating in magnet programs against that of students attending regular schools suggests that magnets have been effective in improving the mix of students attending some schools.

I hasten to add, however, that while "balanced'' enrollment is necessary for positive interactions among individuals who identify with various racial and ethnic groups, it is not all that is needed. There have been too many anecdotal reports that interschool segregation has been replaced with intraschool segregation. A priori, I would expect intraschool segregation to occur more frequently in mandatory integration programs than in voluntary ones, such as magnet programs. But that's an empirical question.

Improved academic achievement for all students is another key objective of the magnet program. It is presumably the promise of improved academic achievement through greater resources and higher-quality educational programming that helps motivate parents to pursue an integrated educational experience for their children.

The claim that magnet schools help improve academic achievement was supported by the perennial finding that, on the average, students in magnet programs scored higher on achievement tests than students in regular schools did. But the validity of this comparison rests on the assumption that students were admitted into the magnet program at random.

Wary that magnet students were not typical of the average district student, the Los Angeles school board conducted a secondary assessment of the performance of magnet schools that attempted to control for selection effects by comparing magnet schools with schools that were demographically similar (for example, in the percentage of students eligible for participation in the federal free- or reduced-cost lunch program, or in the percentage of families on welfare). The resulting comparison of test scores revealed no statistically significant difference in the scores of these two groups.

Stirred by this finding, district researchers devised a better method for evaluating what effect the magnet program had on the academic performance of participating students. Specifically, the evaluators developed a data base that contained background and test-score data for a sample of two student types: (1) students who attended magnet schools and centers; and (2) students who had applied to a magnet but were still on a waiting list. The result: Magnet students performed no better than comparable students who did not participate in the magnet program.

The magnet-evaluation results also support the conclusion that the test scores of both magnet-program participants and students on the waiting list were high relative to the district average. If indeed students are selected to participate in magnets on a first-come, first-served basis, I believe this result can be explained largely by differences in parent motivation--some parents know more or work harder than others to make education systems work for their children. These happen to be the same parents who provide the greatest motivation to their children to learn. I doubt that these children possess greater intellectual aptitude than their neighborhood peers. But, willy-nilly, they do possess greater support.

But the notion that magnets "cream'' high-performing students from neighborhood schools has important implications for the school system. Because those who opt for magnet placement are members of highly motivated families, their departure potentially hurts neighborhood schools in several ways: (1) These schools lose good students who through their exemplary performance and commendable work habits serve as role models for other students; (2) the schools lose highly motivated parents, which may reveal itself in the form of lower parent participation and less pressure on neighborhood schools to be accountable; and (3) neighborhood schools become less attractive to extant and prospective teachers, most of whom derive part of their work satisfaction from student success. While such forces tend to operate with or without magnet schools, the existence of magnet opportunities quickens their impact.

Despite this caveat, the elements of the "supermarket'' and "magnet'' stories suggest an interesting set of policy dynamics. Voluntary magnet schools--partly by design and partly through parent behavior--attract highly motivated, high-achieving students from a district's major racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. Children who participate in voluntary magnet programs are children who are more likely to succeed with or without magnets. This is because they are nurtured, motivated, supported by strong, effective advocates, generally (but not necessarily) in the person of their parents. Moreover, these highly motivated parents are willing to expose their children to multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural experiences. It may be the case, therefore, that voluntary magnet programs are inadvertently nurturing a hefty share of America's future leadership--a leadership that may manifest openness to multiracial, multiethnic inclusion without really thinking about it. This dynamic strikes me as desirable.
Randy Ross is a policy analyst for a national research organization. He served five years as associate director of the Los Angeles City Board of Education's independent analysis unit, and six years with the National Urban League in New York City, leaving as the associate director for national planning and evaluation. He is the author of Government and the Private Sector: Who Should Do What?

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