Equity & Diversity

Book Argues for Economically Diverse Schools

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — March 13, 2012 3 min read
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At a time when research is highlighting growing achievement gaps between rich and poor students, one group of researchers, educators, and advocates met here last week to present evidence for a strategy they hope will ultimately narrow such gaps: socioeconomic integration.

The event marked the publication of The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy, a compilation of new and recent research released by the Washington-based Century Foundation.

Almost 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, many districts are still struggling to achieve racially and economically diverse schools. A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 decreed that while districts can pursue diversity, it must be done in a race-neutral manner. (“Districts Face Uncertainty in Maintaining Racially Diverse Schools,” June 28, 2007.)

That has pushed districts to socioeconomic-based integration programs. Experts at the March 7 event noted that at least 80 districts are implementing plans to integrate their schools by socioeconomic status.

“If all our neighborhoods were racially and economically integrated, it’d certainly be more convenient to have a system based on neighborhood schools,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the editor of the new book. “But there is a growing consensus ... that it is unfair to condemn low-income kids to high-poverty schools just because parents can’t afford to live in a better neighborhood.”

The book adds to research indicating that students perform better in schools where poverty is not highly concentrated. In her chapter, Jeanne L. Reid, a fellow at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, shares research indicating that the receptive language, expressive language, and mathematics learning of students from all economic backgrounds is positively linked to the average socioeconomic status in the classroom.

In another chapter, researcher Marco Basile, a doctoral student at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., describes what Mr. Kahlenberg said is the first cost-benefit analysis of socioeconomic-status-based integration programs. Mr. Basile found that while integration programs may require an investment he estimates to be $6,500 per student, the benefit to society, as measured by increased income, less time on welfare, and fewer crimes, is nearly $33,000 over a student’s lifetime.

“Investing in ways to promote economic integration is likely to yield more ‘bang for the buck’ than continuing to pour extra money into high-poverty schools,” Mr. Kahlenberg said.

But Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, cautioned conference participants against “overselling the evidence” for such integration programs, saying that there are not many randomized studies on the effectiveness of those strategies.

A Policy Shift

In another chapter, three experts—Stephanie Aberger, a consultant with Expeditionary Learning, a New York-based school reform organization and school network; Anne G. Perkins, a research associate at the Massachusetts higher education department; and Ann Mantil, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education—map out the poverty levels of districts nationwide and describe possibilities for interdistrict collaboration to reduce the number of high-poverty schools. “District lines don’t have to look the way they’re currently drawn,” said Ms. Aberger.

Another mechanism for promoting socioeconomic integration, Mr. Kahlenberg argues in a separate chapter, is using magnet schools in poorer urban centers to lure higher-income students.

Gary Orfield, a co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a phone interview that “people become overly enthusiastic about social-class desegregation as a substitute for racial desegregation.” Integration plans should address both race and socioeconomic status, he said.

Kimberly Robinson, a professor of law at the University of Richmond in Virginia, agreed. “It would be a mistake to say it’s a perfect substitute [for race-based integration programs]. However, in the court’s analysis, it’s the best alternative,” she said.

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Education Week as New Book Builds a Case for Socioeconomic Integration

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