Sixty years have passed since Brown v. Board of Education overturned school segregation statutes, but not much has changed with the racial and socioeconomic diversity of our schools.
Today, the drive to improve the nation’s education system is creating reforms for almost every characteristic of a school except for the composition of schools’ student bodies. We’ve seen changes in curriculum, testing, teacher evaluation, school governance structures, and the use of technology in instruction. Almost everything is being challenged in an effort to reform schools ... except for school segregation.
From having worked in both a high-poverty, racially segregated school and a low-poverty diverse school, I’ve seen the difference the two environments have on students’ educational outcomes. A growing body of evidence supports the ideas that racially and socio-economically diverse schools can be vehicles to higher student achievement and ensure better outcomes for poor and minority students.
The benefits of diverse schools are both academic and social. Researchers like Adai Tefera, Erica Frankenburg, Genivieve Siegel-Hawley, and Gina Chirchigno have compiled decades of evidence showing that African-American and Latino students perform better academically in integrated schools than in segregated schools. When students attend diverse schools, especially from a young age, they are less likely to form racial stereotypes and more likely to seek out integrated environments in the future. The opposite is true for students of all races who attend segregated schools.
There’s a strong argument for focusing on racially and economically diverse student populations, and legislators are beginning to pay attention. Here in Maryland, State Senator Bill Ferguson introduced a bill during Maryland’s legislative session that would establish Next Generation Schools. These schools would be run by outside operators with the explicit intent of creating a student body from multiple jurisdictions composed of no more than 55 percent and no less than 35 percent of students who qualify for free- and reduced-price meals. The schools would be approved and overseen by the state board of education and would be responsible for meeting the same student achievement benchmarks as all other public schools in the state.
Maryland’s Senate Bill 683 is a true example of innovative solutions to a pressing problem, and deserves bipartisan support. Democrats should rally behind the bill because it represents a way forward for poor and minority students while maintaining teachers’ right to collectively bargain in a union. Republicans should rally behind the bill because the bill allows private organizations to submit proposals and manage schools, creating the type of educational innovation and choice that charter advocates lobby for.
The bill was introduced in the 2015 session, and has been referred for further study. Ultimately, its success or failure will depend not just on its fate in the legislative process, but in how it is implemented. Any classroom teacher who has watched the implementation of the Common Core State Standards knows that a good idea on paper can wither when it’s not properly administered and implemented. As the bill moves forward, Maryland lawmakers need to ensure that Next Generation Schools keep the following in mind:
First, the school must draw students from multiple districts, and a dedicated effort needs to be made to recruit middle and upper income families. American parents tend to be very focused on finding the most excellent education possible for their children, and many may incorrectly believe that sending their child to school with low-income students will harm their own child’s educational outcomes. Historically, white flight has been caused by many factors, one of which is white parents’ fear of witnessing a decline in a school’s achievement as the percentage of poor and minority children increases.
In order for Next Generation Schools to work, community buy-in and parental support are essential, particularly for middle class parents. Providing high-quality programming around the arts, gifted enrichment, or careers in advanced technology can help attract middle-income parents. When outside operators submit proposals for Next Generation Schools, they should be required to demonstrate thorough plans for how to address this issue.
Second, Next Generation Schools need to attract a diverse, highly effective teaching force, and make sure that all teachers are trained to work to address the needs of poor and minority students. Students need quality instruction, but a Next Generation School needs to be built around more than that. Minority students should see people that look like them in positions of authority. Students of color need to know that they’re equal members of the school community, not charity cases getting bused into a white, middle class world. A diverse faculty helps send that message.
Additionally, suburban teachers may not have experience working with a significant population of low-income students, and may not be equipped initially to serve their students’ needs. However, explicit training in multicultural education is important for all educators, not just those with limited experience with diverse students.
Finally, encourage operators to make this work at the elementary school level. Research shows that the social benefits of diverse schools are especially pronounced when younger children attend them. However, the logistical demands of transporting young children far from their homes is significant, and parents of younger children are right to be concerned about sending their children far away. One potential solution to address this problem is to locate Next Generation Schools in downtown business centers. A location in the heart of downtown isn’t what most people think of as ideal for an elementary school, but it would make schools convenient for both middle-income parents who commute to downtown from the suburbs, and inner-city students who already live within a few miles of downtown.
Why is the success of programs like Next Generation Schools imperative, not just for Maryland, but for our country? Integrating schools offers the potential to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty for the students who experience it. Poverty is growing among public school students, and our population of students of color is growing. If these trends continue, each passing year will make it logistically more difficult to integrate schools.
Some states, like Kansas, are embracing supply-side economic policies that actually make schools less diverse. Additionally, the lack of strong public policy efforts in housing integration means that diverse schools are unlikely to happen on their own without explicit planning.
School integration isn’t the only solution to our nation’s educational issues, but it’s an important opportunity that we can’t afford to lose.
The opinions expressed in Connecting the Dots: Ideas and Practice in Teaching 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.