The Dilemma of Academic Diversity

Last week was the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, so it’s fitting that the lead article in Thursday’s New York Times is about America’s growing diversity. “Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S.,” the headline reads. The story immediately focuses on the issue of schools. “The United States has a spotty record educating minority youth; will older Americans balk at paying to educate a younger generation that looks less like themselves? And while the increasingly diverse young population is a potential engine of growth, will it become a burden if it is not properly educated?” Good questions.

Yet, despite our student population’s diversity, the number of diverse schools, as imagined by Brown, remains limited. Upwards of 40 percent of black and Latino students still attend racially isolated schools (where white pupils represent less than 10 percent of the enrollment). And the average black or Latino student attends a school that is 75-percent minority. Meanwhile, more than four in five white students attend schools that are majority-white—even though whites barely make up 50 percent of our school population. (All of these data are from Gary Orfield’s Civil Rights Project.)

A long Times article from a few days earlier described in moving terms what this type of racial isolation means for young people. “At Explore, as at many schools in New York City, children trundle from segregated neighborhoods to segregated schools, living a hermetic reality.” One student, Amiyah, tells the reporter: “It’s a bit weird. All my friends are predominantly black, and all the teachers are predominantly white. I think white kids go to different schools. I don’t know. I haven’t seen many white people in a big space before.”

Sure enough, most studies show the benefits of racially and socio-economically mixed schools. Even such luminaries as Eric Hanushek and Caroline Hoxby have found positive peer effects for minority students when they sit in integrated classrooms. Less rigorous research has linked exposure to middle-class students (and their culture) to better life outcomes for poor kids.

The question today, as for the past twenty years or so (when the forcible desegregation movement ran out of steam), is what can be done to better integrate our schools? The Supreme Court no longer allows explicit social engineering by race. And parents have shown—in Wake County, North Carolina and elsewhere—an unwillingness to have their kids forcibly bused to distant schools. (Not that such policies are in line with a free society, anyway.)

But there are at least two reasons for hope. First, contrary to what you might think, the rapid gentrification of many of our great cities is making school integration more feasible than it’s been for decades. As neighborhoods grow more diverse, it’s easier (though not inevitable) for their local schools to become diverse, too. Second, the charter school movement is awakening to the opportunities that charters might play in creating voluntarily integrated schools of choice.

These efforts will struggle, however, with the difficult question of academic diversity. Which brings us to last week’s other solid piece of reporting, this one in the Washington Post, on the topic of differentiated instruction—“in essence, adapting lessons for kids of different abilities within a classroom” rather than tracking or grouping students by ability.

As I wrote in Education Next last year, the wide spread in students’ prior academic achievement is probably the greatest challenge facing teachers today. No classroom is immune. But classes that are racially and socio-economically diverse are likely to have especially large achievement gaps between their high and low performers—creating a nearly impossible instructional task for mere mortals.

Consider a second Hoxby peer-effects study. In 2006, she and Gretchen Weingarth examined the schools in Wake County. For the better part of two decades, that district, in and around Raleigh, had been reassigning lots of kids to different schools every year in order to keep its schools racially and socioeconomically balanced. That created thousands of natural experiments whereby the composition of classrooms changed dramatically but randomly. That, in turn, provided Hoxby and Weingarth an opportunity to investigate the impact of these changes on student achievement.

They found evidence for what they called the “boutique model” of peer effects, “in which students do best when the environment is made to cater to their type.” They wrote: “Our evidence does not suggest that complete segregation of people, by types, is optimal…What our evidence does suggest is that efforts to create interactions between lower and higher types ought to maintain continuity of types.”

What that means for classrooms is that it’s okay for them to contain a range of students (say high, medium, and low achievers), as long as that range is not too wide. What’s pernicious is a “bimodal” distribution of students in the same class: just very high and very low achievers, with few in between. Yet that is precisely the kind of distribution many diverse schools find themselves with. On average, upper-middle-class white students from college-educated two-parent families tend to achieve at very high levels and poor minority students from single-parents homes tend to achieve at very low levels. Put these students in the same classroom and you’ve got a real dilemma.

How on earth can a teacher instruct such a group of pupils effectively? If the answer is to keep kids in separate ability groups all day, then why not just create whole classrooms by ability instead? In schools that are not racially and socio-economically diverse—say, high-poverty inner-city schools, or affluent all-white suburban schools—it’s not as difficult an issue. There you can group students by ability without grouping students by race or class.

In diverse schools, however, such grouping will often (stress often, not always) mean re-segregating students by race and/or class. And what’s the point of an integrated school with segregated classrooms? Which brings us back to “differentiated instruction,” and the hope that somehow a teacher can reach kids of all abilities together.

Squaring this circle is the daunting challenge that diverse schools face. Most will probably land on a combination of strategies—grouping students by achievement level for part of the day, maybe for reading and math, while teaching them heterogeneously in subjects like science, social studies, art, music, and P.E. But schools that refuse to group at all—out of an ideological aversion to “sorting”—will struggle to help all their students achieve at high levels. At least that’s what the best research indicates. And if parents—of all races and classes—see that their own kids aren’t getting what they need, you can kiss those diverse schools goodbye.

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry originally appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

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