Integration improves more than test scores and graduation rates

The headline in the February 12 Washington Post shouldn’t surprise anyone who has looked carefully at the consequences of segregating low-income and minority children: “How segregated schools turn school kids into criminals,” it said.

The story looks at what happened when a lawsuit in the early 2000s effectively dismantled a highly successful school integration program in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, NC.

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

At GS4A, we often write that socioeconomic integration is important because the demography of classrooms and schools is so important to educational outcomes. In the presence of middle class students, parents and expectations for success, poor children show dramatic improvements. But the demography argument cuts both ways.

With resegregation, the performance gap (between white and black, rich and poor students) in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg schools began to widen. Meanwhile, according to the Post, “a non-white boy who went to school that was 60 percent minority, instead of 40 percent minority, would be about 16 percent more likely to get arrested, according to the data.”

Why? “Taking so many at-risk kids from the same neighborhood, and packing them together into the same school, magnifies the bad influences they have on each other.”

Diversify schools along socioeconomic lines and you can both reduce juvenile crime and get more kids through high school ready for the next phase of life—be it college, work training or a job.

Across the country, new strategies for school integration are proliferating (because the evidence makes the case for it), yet there are and long will be communities that resist integration and fear its consequences, especially for affluent suburban children.

But that fear is unfounded.

In another Post story, of Feb. 9, education reporter Amy Layton, says that despite efforts to desegregate schools in some places, the communities that have worked hard to keep their schools integrated have much to show for it.

“In Hartford, CT, for example, black and Latino students from the city attend regional magnet schools along with white students from more affluent suburbs. In 2013, there was no gap in state reading test scores for third-­graders, meaning white, Latino and black students all scored about the same. The achievement gap also was eliminated between Latino and white students on the fifth-grade reading test. And by 10th grade, the gap between low-­income students and their more affluent peers was 5 percentage points on the reading test, compared with a statewide average of 28 points.”

Not every community that has used regional magnet schools as a tool for socioeconomic integration has eliminated the achievement gap,  but the yawning gaps caused by segregation narrow dramatically in every case I know of.  And who knows? We might be able to develop a Rochester-centric plan that can completely eliminate the gap over time.

But improved test scores and graduation rates are not the only reason to support using magnet schools to end socioeconomic segregation.

A brand new analysis of findings from across the country makes it clear that integration is as important for middle class  and wealthy kids as for poor kids. Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo, in “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students,” write:

White students in particular benefit from racially and ethnically diverse learning contexts in that the presence of students of color stimulates an increase in the complexity with which students—especially white students—approach a given issue. When white students are in racially homogeneous groups, no such cognitive stimulation occurs. Research shows that ‘the mere inclusion of different perspectives, and especially divergent ones, in any course of discussion leads to the kind of learning outcomes (for example, critical thinking, perspective-taking) that educators, regardless of field, are interested in.'”

In other words, integration makes all kids smarter and better prepares them for living and working in a diverse world—a world in which success depends as much on empathy, creativity and  collaboration as it does on academic achievement.