"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.