A New Solution to an Old Problem: School Integration

During the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement fought to integrate public schools in the South as a matter of racial justice.

Today's advocates for school integration are marching to a strikingly new beat. Now, federal, state and local policymakers of all races across the US are clamoring to integrate schools in order to achieve socioeconomic diversity -- not only as a matter of social justice and constitutional compliance, but also on the grounds that socioeconomic diversity and academic excellence go hand-in-hand.

We are not surprised when education researchers and sociologists both cite strong evidence that a school's socioeconomic profile is a significant predictor of how well a student will perform academically. Virtually all failing schools in the country are high-poverty schools with low-test scores, high expulsion rates, low graduation rates and low attendance rates.

What perhaps is surprising, however, is new anecdotal and empirical evidence of the positive effects of nonwhite educators for children of all backgrounds. Gloria Ladson-Billings, an African American professor of urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put it this way: "I want to suggest that there is something that may be even more important than black students having black teachers and that is white students having black teachers!"

Most surprising of all is growing evidence that growing numbers of charter schools are the leading champions of socioeconomic diversity and integration. Why is this happening? How do these schools achieve diversity? Is socioeconomic diversity within the school promoting social diversity outside the school? In a landmark study of diverse charter schools, researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University have set out to answer these questions.

In the past, charter schools tended to be more racially segregated than traditional public schools. In fact, charters were often criticized for exacerbating patterns of segregation by race, class and family background. But times are a-changing. Charter schools are increasingly using their autonomy to decide which students get preferences in their lotteries (by zip code), how students are taught, and who teaches at the school.

So why are charter schools choosing to become more diverse? In many cases, the founders think of diversity as a valued good. Diversity represents a broadly democratic ideal and is worth pursuing on its own merits. As Diane Tavenner, founder of Summit Public Schools, said:

I came from a low-income household and had lots of opportunities given to me through public education. I now see that many of my pathways are closed. The intentionally diverse charter model is one way that we can provide equitable opportunities for all students.

Others who start diverse charter schools consider diversity as a necessary means to promote and attain higher student academic standards. In all 21 schools we studied, SES diversity was front and center in the school mission.

So how do these schools work? For diverse charters to succeed they must not only attract but also retain a diverse student population. In the 43 states and D.C. with charter laws, most schools decide on their own where to locate their school. They search for diverse communities with diverse feeder schools, or locate on the border of at least two relatively homogeneous communities (e.g., urban, suburban or more affluent, less affluent). We were surprised to learn that white, privileged families were attracted to the progressive education programs of diverse charters, so outreach and recruitment targets low-income families.

As mentioned earlier, charter schools can design their own education programs and yes, they do decide to do things differently. For one thing, there are high expectations for all students. Nearly all diverse charters offer a college prep curriculum that is taken by everyone. Some of the high schools offer an open enrollment honors program, which allows students to opt in; others require all students to take a few designated APs. We did not find any ability-tracking by classroom. However, within classrooms, ability-grouping, differentiated instruction, and computer-assisted/personalized instruction were all used to help students keep pace with course material. Student discipline in our sample schools featured the principles of restorative justice which helped diminish the rate of student suspensions.

Finally, are diverse charter schools producing new social relationships? In surveys of students, the majority across all SES levels agreed they have a diverse group of friends and that they often hang out with kids from different backgrounds outside of school. This finding was confirmed in the parent survey. Their children often socialized at school with students from various socio-economic backgrounds.

Are diverse charter schools the wave of the future in public education? By definition, schools of choice located in urban neighborhoods have the flexibility to enroll diverse students by drawing from different communities outside of catchment (or attendance) areas that have high concentrations of poverty -- an option not available to traditional public schools.

Until all public schools have that option, the likelihood of achieving socioeconomic integration throughout all urban schools seems very dim, indeed.