If American education overall is to be improved, the boundaries between cities and suburbs must be torn down.
The meaning of diversity is changing, for the better. Across most of the country, schools and workplaces have been seeking diversity primarily by seeking a balance of whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Now there is a slowly growing movement among school systems to disregard race and ethnicity in placing students.
The Cambridge, Mass., school system will begin to make school assignments on the basis of parents’ incomes. Cambridge, the home of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will try for a representative balance between middle-class and poor in its schools, the poor being those students who qualify for free lunches. In Cambridge, which is a city in which no one racial or ethnic group is a majority, some schools will no longer have a predominance of poor students while other schools have students from mostly middle-class homes.
By doing what perhaps a dozen school districts around the country already are doing, Cambridge is sure to see its average test scores rise. (“Cambridge Becomes Latest District to Integrate by Income,” Jan. 9, 2002.)
For 40 years or so, we’ve tried to integrate schools primarily by race. The theory was that bringing minority children into classrooms in which most of the children were white would benefit the minority children. But some students classified as white and supposed to be privileged lived in poverty and were not good students. Some classified as minority were from middle-class homes and were excellent students. Students of Asian descent usually were ignored.
The educational aspirations of whites were supposed to raise the aspirations of the others. Sometimes the theory actually worked in practice. But most of the time it did not. Minority children, especially in the higher grades, did not want to take on white aspirations. They resisted becoming better students. They did not want to become carbon copies of the white kids. Discipline problems grew, and the educational climate of integrated schools suffered.
To keep their children out of schools that were sliding downward, college-educated families in cities moved to the suburbs—the infamous white flight. Fewer and fewer children of educated parents attended city schools. In cities with majority or near- majority minority populations, the quality of public school education plummeted. If school assignments in such cities were made on the basis of parents’ income, there might have been some benefit. Middle-class students of whatever color, instead of being concentrated in one or two areas, could have been scattered among all the schools in a city.
It is a truism among educators today that schools that have the highest parental incomes are the best schools. Higher incomes usually mean higher educational attainment. Parents with high educational attainment instill high educational aspirations in their children. Their children usually are eager to learn, and rarely are sent to the principal’s office to be disciplined. It is also a truism that parental involvement is crucial to a school’s success. Higher-income parents get involved; poor parents usually do not.
The reform most needed is new school district boundaries.
City schools do not attract the best teachers. Often, teachers in high-poverty schools are only marginally qualified. They have lower expectations of their students. Their A students score at about the same level as C students in middle-class suburban schools. There are always exceptions, but the best teachers usually spend most of their careers working in the suburbs.
While proportional distribution on the basis of parental income makes more sense than the pursuit of racial balance, truly meaningful educational improvement will occur only when district and city limits can be crossed in making educational assignments. If American education overall is to be improved, the boundaries between cities and suburbs must be torn down. If school districts could be realigned and cross boundaries the way legislative districts are when they are reapportioned, American education would leap ahead.
Legislative districts are reapportioned every 10 years, and so should school districts. The purpose should be to achieve an optimal balance among children from poor homes and middle-class homes. If that were done, test scores in metropolitan areas throughout the country surely would go up. Test scores among all school districts would cluster much more closely.
Funding of school districts would have to be very different from what it is today. Almost all funding would come from the state, rather than from local property taxes. Michigan already has made a big change. The state now supplies approximately 80 percent of school funding. Maryland is working on the Thornton Plan, attempting to reach equality on the amount spent on each student throughout the state. That should be the goal across America: in every state, an equal amount for each pupil within each school district.
Regular standardized testing helps. School assignments on the basis of parental income help. But the reform most needed is new school district boundaries.
Paul Marx is a professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven in New Haven, Conn.
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Diversity Reconsidered