The first of two companion reports issued by The Century Foundation, a progressive policy and research think tank, tracks the growth of socioeconomic integration in education over the last 20 years. In 1996, the group identified just two school districts nationwide that used socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment policies. By 2007, the number of districts with socioeconomic-integration polices had increased twentyfold, with roughly 40 using this strategy. Today, 91 school jurisdictions deliberately blend affluent and less-advantaged children, totaling over 4 million students, about 8 percent of K-12 public-school enrollment. For contrast, there are more than 15,000 school districts in the U.S., some 50 million students in K-12 schools, and 92 percent of students remain in racially and socioeconomically homogenous schools. Still, researchers say the raw numbers—comprising traditional public schools and charter schools—indicate a dramatic shift.
“The real story here is about the momentum,” said Kimberly Quick, the co-author of the school-integration study and a policy associate at the foundation. “The districts and charter networks identified intentionally, and in most cases voluntarily, chose to integrate their schools during an era in which integration was under-discussed and under-supported.” Noting that both Acting Secretary of Education John King and the White House have recently made school integration a priority, Quick anticipates such programs will grow at an even faster pace in the future. “These 91 districts and charters represent a small slice [but] can serve as models for new programs across the country.”
The new research builds on established findings dating back 50 years, and confirms the wide-ranging benefits for students in racially and socioeconomically integrated schools, including stronger test scores, increased college attendance, and improved critical-thinking skills. Research on diverse educational settings suggests that the gains associated with desegregation stem from having more middle-class students in a school, not from the racial diversity per se, according to Halley Potter, a Century Foundation fellow and Quick’s co-author. Yet “long histories of legal discrimination targeted at communities of color have severely racialized class,” she said, with middle-class schools more likely to have strong teachers, parent support, and a core group of high-achieving peers.
“If you successfully bring these resources to high-poverty schools, it is possible to produce strong results for kids—and we know examples of excellent high-poverty schools that are doing that,” Potter said. “But these successful high-poverty schools are sadly still the outliers,” she stated, stressing that the majority of education reform strategies “focus on this long shot … rather than pursuing integration to break up the concentrations of poverty that we know are so harmful for kids.”