The Promise of Integrated Schools

New research shows more districts opting for diverse schools, as others face resistance.

Kristina Carr and Hanna Benn deliver flowers to their teachers Air Base Elementary School, one of the first in Miami-Dade County to integrate black students 50 years ago.  (Wilfredo Lee / AP)

Charlotte, North Carolina, became a national model for school desegregation in the 1970s, busing students to balance the racial composition of its schools. Decades later, Charlotte is a city where no racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority of residents—whites (45 percent), blacks (35 percent), and Latinos (13 percent) top the city’s multicultural mix. And within this diverse and fast-growing urban metropolis, the city’s students are once again segregated by race and class, with levels reminiscent of the pre-1970s era.

It’s not uncommon to find public schools across the country with students isolated by race and income. As headlines chronicle the problem, the debate continues—from the court of public opinion to state courts—over how to integrate schools. Two recent reports offer the latest research to point to hopeful trends as more school districts pursue integration—with promising benefits shown for students of color and their white peers in racially diverse classrooms. Yet the research does not reveal how to bridge the gap between belief and action. Policymakers and parents who both support integration, and are universally willing to expend political and social capital to bring about racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. Instead, efforts to make that a reality have ultimately lagged.

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.”

The most common method listed by districts to achieve this integration was redrawing neighborhood school boundaries, a controversial approach that is often accompanied by public outcry. But the researchers, while conceding the politically contentious nature of school-boundary decisions, admittedly offer scarce guidance to help school leaders that are considering changing attendance zones. Much of the pushback, like school segregation, cuts along racial and class lines. One illustration of the inherent challenges is seen in New York City, where parents on the Upper West Side and in the neighboring borough of Brooklyn opposed recent school boundary changes that would bring racial and socioeconomic integration.

The resistance in the nation’s largest school system, however, is not representative of white parents overall, said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, whose new report on integration expands on the importance of racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse schools and classrooms.

Wells argues that the time is ripe for political leaders to listen to the growing demand for more diverse public schools. The issue deserves greater emphasis and attention with students of color now a majority of the public school population and whites gentrifying urban neighborhoods of color, she says. “We have tons of data … that shows that white parents increasingly want their kids to go to diverse schools,” Wells said. “If you ask, ‘Do parents want diverse schools?’ whites are saying yes.”

In her report, Wells cites a 2003 survey administered by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that found 60 percent of white Americans thought racially integrated schools were better for kids, and a 2004 survey conducted by Newsweek that showed whites increasingly linked public school improvement to diverse student bodies.

More recent polling, though, finds most Americans prefer local schools over school diversity. A January HuffPost/YouGov poll found that many Americans agree that racially diverse schools are better for students but “a solid majority said it is more important ‘to have students go to local community schools even if it means most students are of the same race.’” Less than one in five (18 percent) opted to send their kids to racially diverse schools knowing it would mean “many of the students don’t live nearby.”

For those families that prioritize diverse educational experiences, the study shows racially integrated schools improve education for students of all races and accomplish one immeasurable advantage: helping youth challenge stereotypes and their implicit biases toward people of different races and ethnicities. But fully realizing this goal requires teachers who are trained in facilitating courageous conversations about race, said Wells, and skilled in racially and culturally relevant teaching practices.

“Research emphasizes how students learn from each other, but there are different things that teachers can do to foster that learning,” Wells said. “We wrote the report to help people see the need for more research on teaching in more diverse classrooms. [We] need to do more work to help educators cultivate those benefits.”