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Apr. 22 2010 - 1:46 am | 169 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

Should schools mix rich and poor kids for the greater good? (part 4)

True/Slant writer Megan Cottrell and I share a deep interest in issues of race, class, and urban life, and all week we are discussing income diversity and school segregation. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 were posted earlier this week. Following is the fourth installment:


Your line of thinking is right on. Racial segregation and social class are completely intertwined in the United States, and have been for a long time. Massey and Denton’s 1993 book, American Apartheid, is a wonderful (and sobering) source of data on the history of residential segregation and its lasting, negative economic impact on the black community. The authors’ argument is that black folks were deliberately segregated from whites for most of the 20th century, by a variety of means. Then, as the publisher’s website describes,

Under conditions of extreme segregation, any increase in the overall rate of black poverty yields a marked increase in the geographic concentration of indigence and the deterioration of social and economic conditions in black communities. As ghetto residents adapt to this increasingly harsh environment under a climate of racial isolation, they evolve attitudes, behaviors, and practices that further marginalize their neighborhoods and undermine their chances of success in mainstream American society.”

 (Someone at the University of Michigan put together a visual representation of this argument as well.)

As you explained, this set of circumstances results in certain schools and school systems becoming overwhelmed with a concentration of students who have extraordinary needs beyond academics. What to do? Your suggestion of getting people to mix more by race and class might be the most comprehensive and effective solution, but creating action around that idea would be perhaps more controversial than anything our country has dealt with since the Civil Rights Movement (although this could be accomplished, to some extent, through market incentives for businesses and individuals, as opposed to the unpopular method of government fiat). Therefore, it seems we are left with creating mixed-income schools, which you labeled the practical, cost-effective solution.

The problem is, there is still much debate from concerned, empathetic, experienced practitioners, policymakers, and researchers about what matters more—school type/quality or socioeconomics/home life. For example, many people who have been successful teachers in challenging urban schools or who have run high-performing urban charter schools believe that school quality is the most important thing and can overcome external (i.e., neighborhood/home) factors. These folks will go to the mat and argue that it doesn’t matter who walks through the front door of the school or what needs they have—if the school is organized correctly and has good leadership and excellent teaching, students are going to do well academically. On the other hand, someone who has spent time as a social worker or researcher in low-income neighborhoods or schools is likely to believe just the opposite—that factors outside of school will have more of an impact on a student by age 18 than anything else.

When the people who know the most and genuinely care the most about these issues can’t agree on what the solution is (which may be in part because they don’t completely agree about what the problem is), it’s going to be hard to get traction for any proposal. This is compounded by the fact that there is not always research on which to base some of these arguments. For example, even though Wake County’s student achievement scores jumped significantly from 2000, when the income diversity policy began, to 2005, there is no proof that this specific policy caused that jump. The only hard research (by that I mean a study that included rigorous statistical methodology) I could find was done by Stanford economics professor Caroline Hoxby (she did the research while at Harvard). Hoxby concluded,

Our results indicate that, when we properly account for the effects of peers’ achievement, peers’ race, ethnicity, income, and parental education have no or at most very slight effects. We compute that switching from race-based to income based desegregation has at most very slight effects, so that Wake County’s numerous reassignments mainly affected achievement through the redistribution of lower and higher achieving peers.”

(no URL is available, but you can get a PDF of the paper by typing hoxby wake county into Google Scholar’s search bar)

Research on other school districts seems to show that diversity by income does have an impact. But even if proof of effectiveness is available, will it matter? In the case of Wake County, parents opposed the program not because of school quality or the program’s effectiveness, but because of busing.

So I guess we’re back to square one, which is a tough question: How can people be convinced to move out of their comfort zones for what is—at least in some people’s eyes—the greater good?

PS1 – I find it both sad and amusing that as we discuss the end of a program that helped minority and poor students attend more integrated schools, The Washington Post reported last week that

A federal judge Tuesday ordered a rural county in southwestern Mississippi to stop segregating its schools by grouping African American students into all-black classrooms and allowing white students to transfer to the county’s only majority-white school….”

This related story, which includes some national context, came out a couple days ago.

PS2 – I haven’t yet read Gerald Grant’s 2009 book, Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, but based on another book of his I read and this review, I think it should be good.

(Check out Megan’s page for the fifth and final installment of our conversation.)


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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.