Opinion
Equity & Diversity Commentary

Why Integration Matters in Schools

By Derek W. Black — May 13, 2014 5 min read

Desegregation may seem like a distant memory to many and an unknown experience to the rest, but integrated schools are no less important today than they were 60 years ago. When Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was first decided in 1954, litigants asked courts, and later policymakers, to make a leap of faith and assume that school integration would improve educational outcomes for minority students. After all, there were no integrated schools to test the proposition. Six decades later, research confirms their instincts were correct.

Today, we know integration has a positive effect on almost every aspect of schooling that matters, and segregation the inverse. We also know integration matters for all students. Both minorities and whites are disadvantaged by attending racially isolated schools, although in somewhat different ways: The harms to minorities are primarily academic; the harms to whites are social and academic.

Predominantly minority schools, on the whole, deliver inadequate educational opportunities. First, these schools tend to serve predominantly poor students. Due to peer influences and environment, students in these schools routinely have lower rates of achievement than students in mostly middle-income schools. This holds true regardless of a student’s race or socioeconomic status.

Second, the curriculum in these schools is lower in quality, and course offerings—like Advanced Placement and college-prep—are far fewer in number. More importantly, predominantly poor and minority schools find it extremely difficult to attract and retain high-quality teachers. To be clear, there have been, are, and always will be a number of excellent teachers in these schools, but on the whole, these schools enjoy a much smaller share and face high teacher-turnover rates. This has the unique effect of undermining instructional continuity and institutional knowledge while increasing administrative burdens. This unequal access to teachers matters because, aside from peer influences, research shows teacher quality is one of the factors most closely linked to student achievement.

Brown at 60: New Diversity, Familiar Disparities

Even with ground-shifting demographic changes, many public schools continue to be highly segregated 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the principle of “separate but equal” education, but those shifts have also created opportunities to approach diversifying schools and classrooms in new ways.

This special series includes data on race and ethnicity in U.S. schools and the following Commentaries on integration.

  • I, Too, Am America: Making All Students Feel Like They Belong
  • K-12 Education: Still Separate, Still Unequal
  • Hispanics Are Forgotten in Civil Rights History
  • Why Integration Matters in Schools
  • Integration: New Concepts for a New Era

Money alone cannot easily fix these challenges because the racial and socioeconomic characteristics of schools significantly influence where teachers decide to teach. In the absence of huge salary increases, which are beyond the capacity of nearly every needy district, teachers with options tend to choose schools in wealthier districts.

The negative effects of unequal access to quality teachers and middle-income peers are compounded over time, producing drastically lower graduation rates in predominantly poor and minority schools. On average, only four out of 10 students graduate on time in the nation’s predominantly poor and minority high schools. Lower graduation rates hold true for any student attending one of these schools, regardless of his or her race or wealth. With these odds, it is no wonder that attending a predominantly poor and minority school tends to limit students’ access to later opportunities in higher education and employment.

Of course, not all high-poverty, racially isolated schools are low in quality. A small but high-profile contingent of predominantly poor and minority schools deliver exceptional opportunities on a daily basis.

But these schools are defying the odds and demonstrate that, while delivering a quality education to students under circumstances of concentrated poverty can be done, it costs far more per pupil than it otherwise would. The need for intensive instructional and social-service programs tends to be much greater in high-poverty schools, and we have yet to see the consistent willingness of policymakers to make these sorts of investments.

To the contrary, nationally, the per-pupil expenditures in high-poverty, predominantly minority schools are significantly lower than in other schools. When this fact is raised, these disadvantaged schools are then forced to defend the proposition that “money matters.”

In short, the only tried, tested, and cost-effective solution to unequal and inadequate education is integrated education.

Too often, the conversation around integration focuses exclusively on the benefits for poor and minority communities. However, integration holds substantial benefits for middle-income and white students as well. First, integrated schools improve critical thinking. In diverse environments, students are faced with new and varied perspectives and forced to think through their own or new positions more carefully, which improves their critical-thinking skills. Second, integrated schools better prepare students to navigate the multicultural world and global economy they will face upon graduation.

On these two metrics, whites are seriously disadvantaged. Data indicate that, to the surprise of many, whites are actually the most racially isolated student group in the nation (see charts, Page 31). Research demonstrates that this isolation ill prepares them for the future. Major corporations make this point even more concretely in briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court. They attest that they want graduates who are prepared to work in multicultural environments. Integrated schools produce these students.

In other words, white families who are concerned about long-term competitiveness need integrated schools as much as anyone.

So the key question today is not whether integrated schools matter, but how to achieve them. Various school districts, from Wake County, N.C., to Berkeley, Calif., have shown us the way. In 2000, Wake County adopted an assignment plan that capped the percentage of low-income students that could be assigned to any single school. In 2004, Berkeley adopted a plan that took the race, income, and education level of a student’s neighborhood into account in determining where the student would be assigned.

Unfortunately, courts and policymakers are no longer solidly aligned in support of efforts of these sorts. Positive outcomes in integrating districts now often come in spite of, not because of, courts and policymakers.

For integration to flourish outside the most committed districts, federal and state policymakers once again appreciate that integration and improving test scores are part of the same conversation, not disconnected ideas.

A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Why Integration Matters

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