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Higher Ed

When Integrating A School, Does It Matter If You Use Class Instead Of Race?

Three kids canoeing together i
LA Johnson/NPR
Three kids canoeing together
LA Johnson/NPR

"Stronger Together" is not the name of the latest social-media fitness app. It's a grant proposed in President Obama's new budget, reviving an idea that hasn't gotten much policy attention in decades: diversity in public schools. If the request is approved, $120 million will go to school districts for programs intended to make their schools more diverse.

As a new pair of reports from the progressive Century Foundation shows, integration policies have seen a resurgence: In 2007, 40 districts pursued integration. Today that number has more than doubled, to 83, plus nine charter schools or networks. That adds up to a total of 4 million students in classrooms that are more diverse than they'd otherwise be.

This new wave of integration has come with one big difference that sets it apart from the busing battles of the past. These programs rely on family income, not race, as the driver.

To be clear, there's evidence that socially as well as racially integrated schools benefit all students. When a school reaches a stable level of about 30 percent middle-class students, the lower-income students achieve at higher levels and the privileged students do no worse, says Halley Potter, the author of one of the Century Foundation reports. Similarly, the racial achievement gap shrinks in schools that have less than a "supermajority" of 60 percent of any one race.

But the real case for diverse schools is a lot bigger than test scores, says Amy Stuart Wells, who teaches at Teachers College, Columbia University, and is the author of the second report. "The qualitative and quantitative evidence is powerful enough to say, 'We should do this.' "

It's worth pointing out that because of the legacy of discrimination and institutionalized segregation in the United States, in most communities mixing up students by class also means mixing them up by race.

"Diversification by socioeconomic status also means by race," says Mercedes Ebanks, an associate professor in the school of education at Howard University. "The movement towards socioeconomic integration will lead to racial integration and educational equality."

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Still, some experts question whether socioeconomic integration really provides the same benefits as ethnic and cultural integration. There's "not much empirical research on socioeconomic diversity per se" and its benefits, says Katherine Phillips, a professor at the Columbia Business School.

Phillips' own research, along with that of many others, focuses on the cognitive benefits of encounters with ethnic and racial difference. In a class discussion or on a problem-solving team, bringing together different viewpoints and experiences makes everyone think harder and provide better evidence for their opinions, she says.

Given the right atmosphere and guidance, which is a tall order, students in diverse classrooms can build cross-racial friendships, achieve greater levels of empathy and have a chance to work on all-important social and emotional skills.

Intriguingly, other research suggests that implicit bias, our split-second judgments about people based on age, gender or the color of their skin, may cause cognitive impairments. That is: Racist ideas make people think poorly.

There are also economic arguments in favor of pursuing diversity. In the current U.S. Supreme Court case on affirmative action, nearly half of the companies in the Fortune 100 signed a brief testifying that it's an "economic imperative" in the global economy to hire diverse employees with cross-cultural skills that only diverse educational settings can provide.

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