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Opinion
Equity & Diversity Commentary

Who Knew? Integrated Schools Can Benefit All Students

By Willis D. Hawley — May 05, 2004 6 min read
Students who attend genuinely integrated schools have advantages.

As the nation becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, our schools are becoming racial and ethnic islands on which fewer and fewer white children learn with and from students of color. Many see the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka as a time to move on, many others view school desegregation itself as a noble but failed experiment. And while many educators seek to hang on to hard-earned increases in their schools’ racial and ethnic diversity, virtually no political or civic leader is raising the prospect of promoting school integration. School improvement agendas—at least the ones that engender public discussion—ignore, if not indirectly disparage, the desirability of racial and ethnic integration.

Despite this national retreat from school integration, there are solid reasons why increasing the number of students who have the opportunity to learn with and from persons whose race or ethnicity are different from their own will advantage those students and benefit society. Who knew? Historically, the case for school integration has focused on the immorality of segregation and the importance to students of color of equal opportunity. These are significant justifications, and there is good evidence that when teachers and administrators use diversity well, students of color in integrated classrooms do have access to richer opportunities to learn and tend to achieve at higher levels than those in more segregated classrooms.

But resting the case for integrated schools on the benefits to students of color fails to provide whites with a powerful rationale for why they should send their children to integrated schools. Many parents of color, too, may wonder why their children need to learn with white children in order to receive a quality education. Why not, these parents (and no small number of policymakers) argue, simply ensure that students of color receive the resources and good teachers they need to succeed academically?

To be sure, students of color would benefit substantially if the schools they attended had smaller classes, better- qualified teachers, adequate learning resources, safer environs, and more effective leaders. But even if these politically difficult goals were to be achieved, these students and their white classmates would remain socially and economically disadvantaged, when compared with students who attend good schools that are also racially and ethnically integrated.

Most Americans agree that the nation should aspire to be a society in which racial and ethnic differences are respected and do not predict one’s life chances. The successful pursuit of this goal would lead to a reduction in crime, the narrowing of the achievement gap, and the greater realization of individual potential. School integration will hasten the day when these benefits can be secured.

One of the most important capabilities individuals can have is what we commonly call “people skills"—the ability to interact productively with others. These skills have always been important to success in work, social, and family settings. But today they are even more important to one’s economic well-being, as productivity on the job depends increasingly on collaborative problem-solving and action, and when the extended workplace, both domestic and international, has become more and more culturally diverse. Students who attend integrated schools—when their teachers, administrators, and coaches are responsive to the opportunities such schools provide—are more likely to develop positives attitudes toward, and the capacity to interact productively with, people of different races and ethnic backgrounds. The development of intercultural competence, which almost certainly enhances in-group social competence, can only be achieved through practice; that is, in diverse settings, especially schools.

Students who attend genuinely integrated schools are more likely than students who do not to go to integrated colleges, live in integrated neighborhoods, have friends of other races and ethnicities, and work in nontraditional occupations with higher status.

The reduction of prejudice and the development of intercultural competence lift the capabilities of both individuals and our society. And there is good reason to believe, moreover, that learning in racially and ethnically diverse settings can help make one smarter, in the sense that a person can better engage in critical thinking, solve complex problems, and learn new things when the circle of people, experiences, and social contexts widens.

In recent years, many scholars who study learning have concluded that the process is fundamentally “socially constructed” and “socially shared.” This means that prior knowledge, beliefs, and experiences shape how and what we learn, and the opportunities we have to learn are, in turn, shaped by those with whom we interact and the context of that interaction. It follows that diverse learning opportunities should not only enrich the content of what we can learn, but also enhance our abilities to learn.

When we interact with people different from ourselves in learning activities, we create the dynamics needed for cognitive work that can lead to new capabilities.

The greater success we have in learning how to learn from and with people who bring different perspectives to a situation, the more powerful will be our abilities to understand and to reason. Many people lack the knowledge and skill to analyze language and grasp the possibility of different meanings for similar words and phrases; such capabilities are bestperhaps onlygained from experience with other people. When meaning is not shared, problem-solving breaks down, even when everyone involved is well-intentioned.

Confronting challenges to previous assumptions, taking on novel problems for which there are no ready answers, and wrestling with divergent viewpoints and interpretations of events are activities that provide opportunities for intellectual capacity-building. When we interact with people different from ourselves in the context of problem-solving and learning activities, we create the dynamics needed for cognitive work that can lead to new capabilities.

The ability to identify and solve problems depends on the accuracy with which we perceive and interpret the events and information we encounter. Stereotyping sources of information based on racial or ethnic considerations results in miscalculations that undermine the capacity for problem-solving and effective communication. Getting to know the personal histories of people who are different from us, who do not share our racial and ethnic background, breaks down stereotypes. Eliminating stereotypes increases our learning opportunities and our cognitive capabilities.

When confronted with unanticipated and ambiguous situations, many people base their reasoning on their own experiences. While this may be a comforting basis for action, experiences may not be understood well, and their application to new situations may be inappropriate, especially when the new situation is not analyzed from different perspectives. One of the challenges that almost everyone faces in every aspect of his or her life is how to deal with unanticipated and ambiguous situations.

So, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, it seems important to do more than celebrate heroes and heroic struggles, or commiserate about resistance and barriers difficult to overcome. We should also, and perhaps primarily, focus on why students who attend racially and ethnically homogeneous schoolseven if these are good schoolsremain educationally disadvantaged. Then we should determine what we can do to see that as many students as possible have the opportunity to maximize their potential.

Willis D. Hawley is a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland, in College Park, Md. He is the editor, with Timothy Ready, of Measuring Access to Learning Opportunities (National Academy Press, 2004).

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