Q&A: Diversify Schools by Class, Not Color

As the country becomes increasingly diverse, and as the largest minority groups continue to lag economically behind their white and Asian-American counterparts, some activists look to public schools not only for its mission to educate the growing minority population but also to promote racial harmony and social cohesion.

Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, argues that economically integrated schools offer more opportunities for academic achievement for low-income and minority students than, for instance, school vouchers, class-size reduction, or even race-based integration.

Stressing that race and class are closely connected, Kahlenberg argues that socioeconomic integration is one the most important tools for improving academic achievement among all students, particularly among those from lower-income backgrounds.

In brief, here is Kahlenberg's position: Low-income students, who are disproportionally nonwhite, attend schools where the majority of the children are from middle-class households; there they have a better chance of success because they are surrounded by kids who, on average, are more academically engaged, are surrounded by parents who participate in school-related activities, and have more-experienced teachers.

"Racial integration is a very important aim, but if one's goal is boosting academic achievement, what really matters is economic integration," Kahlenberg wrote in a recent article published in American Educator, a quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers union.

In 2001, Kahlenberg authored All Together Now: Creating a Middle-Class School Through Public School Choice, which examined a school district in Wisconsin that had moved toward income-based integration of its public schools. Family-income placements, however, have attracted criticism.

He has also has published an edited a series of essays, The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy.

Kahlenberg recently spoke with The Next America on why economic integration of public schools should be part of the nation's policy dialogue. Specifically, he advocates addressing the achievement gap with regard to class, given the coming wave of low-income minorities that eventually will dominate the workforce.

Below are highlights from a recent conversation with Kahlenberg.

How exactly are the changing demographics impacting public schools?

We're becoming a majority-minority country, but school policies have lagged behind on that. Even as we're becoming more diverse ethnically, racially, economically, our schools are becoming more segregated, particularly by economic status. More students, particularly Latino and black students, are going to high-poverty schools where almost everyone around them is poor. That has devastating effects on the life changes of those students.

You have identified many challenges facing students at high-poverty schools, including fewer parents participating in student-teacher associations. What initiatives help these high-poverty schools?

The barriers are enormous. Students in high-poverty schools have peers who may be less likely to go on to college, they have parents who are working several jobs so they are not able to be involved in the school, and they often get the weakest teachers. But in about 80 school districts across the country, they are taking steps to try to address those poverty concentrations and give everyone a chance to study in an economically integrated school, which often means also being racially and ethnically integrated.

You spoke about public schools being among the few standing institutions where people from different backgrounds come together. Can you elaborate?

In the past, for men at least, we would had the military, where men of all ethnicities, religions, economic groups would come together to serve in the military, make friends from different backgrounds, and have that in common. That no longer exists because we went into an all-volunteer [service], so we don't have that broad-based institution. What we have left are public schools. In some cases, the public schools are serving that function where kids of different backgrounds come together, learn together, and learn what it means to be an American, and also have an equal chance to get ahead.

Unfortunately, we don't have that unifying institution right now. That's particularly problematic considering where we're heading right now, not only for students of color to meet white students, who, on average are going to be more tied in with networks of power. But also the reverse, for Anglo kids to learn a lot from African-American, Latino, and Asian-American students about their stories and histories. If our public schools don't become integrated, we'll lose that unifying institution as well.

Is it really the role of schools to nudge communities to integrate?

If we want to achieve the true purposes of public education, which is to give everyone a chance to move up, and also to unite us in what we have in common as Americans, we have to deal with those segregation issues.

I think the best way to bring kids of different backgrounds together is through a particular theme or pedagogical approach. We have about 2 million kids going into magnet schools that not only take kids who can afford it in a particular neighborhood, but take kids from other school zones and kids of different backgrounds, and they can all get excited about the arts or math. That's a way to bridge differences. Kids will learn about the differences that they have, but also learn what they have in common. We want to make sure that there are institutions like public magnet schools that can serve that role.