Education Opinion

We Can’t Integrate Our Way to Better School Performance

By Sara Mead — July 03, 2013 2 min read
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Smart post from Matt Yglesias on school segregation and the basic math of our nation’s changing child demographics. Since the end of de jure racial segregation, analysis of progress (or, more frequently, lack thereof) in reducing de facto segregation has tended to focus on the percentage of racial and ethnic minority students attending “majority minority” schools. But as the demographic composition of our nation’s students has shifted, non-Hispanic white students make up a smaller percentage of children enrolled in our schools, and are in fact a minority of children under aged 5. This basic demographic math will lead to a situation where, as Yglesias puts it (emphasis added):

Most schools are majority-minority and the vast majority of minority kids are in majority-minority schools and there's not going to be anything you can do about it other than try to make those schools be really good schools.

In other words, if we want our growing population of Black and Hispanic youngsters to be successful in school and life, we need schools that are effective in educating a study body with a majority of Black and/or Hispanic kids. I’d add that the same calculation also applies to efforts to increase socio-economic school integration, which has superseded racial school integration as a focus of smart liberal school reformers in recent years. The problem here again is that there are a lot of low-income kids in the U.S. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, fully 45 percent of children live in low-income families. It’s not reasonable to build school reform strategies based on dramatically increasing the percentages of low-income children attending predominantly middle class schools, because predominantly middle class schools are, themselves, a product of socio-economic segregation. If we want to improve the lives of the large percentage of our children from low-income homes, we’ve got to improve the performance of schools serving large percentages of low-income children.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that our approach to doing that shouldn’t include economic, social, and health supports beyond academic strategies. Nor does it mean that we can’t do a much better job of increasing both racial and socio-economic integration in places where a combination of housing and school assignment policies has led to school demographics that are much more polarized than those of the larger metropolitan areas and communities where they are located. But anyone working to improve education also needs to realize that our world is changing, and that a public dialogue about education that assumes predominantly white, middle-class schools and two-parent families as the norm--and predominantly low-income and minority schools as the exception to an overall acceptable pattern of school performance--is as outdated as a beta max--at likely to meet a similar fate.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.