Blowing Our Diversity Advantage

This post was co-authored by Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we are glad to see renewed interest in the issue of segregation, but discouraged about our societal failure to tackle it. Indeed, we have both recently written about the persistence of racial segregation in our public schools, and about the pernicious effects of associated concentrated poverty. BBA and EPI document the segregation of black and Hispanic children in high-poverty kindergarten classrooms. And Kahlenberg has written about new efforts to reinvigorate Brown by emphasizing socioeconomic integration through public school choice.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this segregation is the waste of a precious American resource, one that could offer our children an important advantage over their peers in many other countries: diversity. We continue, for the most part, to treat the multiple languages spoken in schools from Los Angeles to Minneapolis as only a challenge for teachers, rather than the learning opportunity it could represent for classmates. We see only deficits for children who grow up in very challenging circumstances, rather than finding creative ways to help them share with their peers the resilience and creativity gained through those experiences.

The data in the BBA-EPI study of the close connection between racial segregation and concentrated poverty show that the kindergarten class of 2010-2011 was comprised of roughly half white students, one fourth Hispanic students, and one eighth black students, with the rest Asian and others. If our kindergarten classes reflected that diversity, all American students would be exposed to a diverse peer group and see such diversity as the norm. As a result of our patterns of racial segregation and concentrated poverty, however, most white students enter school in classrooms in which the majority of their peers look a lot like them, and only about one in ten is poor. The reverse is true for black and Hispanic students; over half of them start school in classrooms in which one of every two of their classmates is poor.

Our increasing fixation with standardized tests is exacerbating the problem. Pressure to raise test scores to the exclusion of all else provides disincentives for parents to opt for a school that has lower scores as a result of serving children from multiple countries, even though that school may offer unique windows into other cultures. Policies driven heavily by test scores have cost schools visionary leaders who work well with diverse students and parents, because overly narrow metrics mask those leaders' greatness. As James Ryan, now the dean of Harvard's School of Education, has written, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act's accountability scheme can actually provide a powerful disincentive for middle-class schools to welcome low-income students.

We are not alone in seeing the missed opportunity here. Professor Yong Zhao at the University of Oregon, who grew up in China, disputes the notion that American schools are a mess and that we should emulate Asian schools. Rather, he says, we fail to see the bigger picture, one that shows a uniquely creative, industrious and globally economically successful United States, as measured not by test scores but by worker productivity, and innovative talent. He points to activities like talent shows as uniquely American ways of nurturing a diverse set of interests in the school setting. Our increasingly narrow academic focus not only ignores these many intelligences and talents, it squelches them.

Although the federal government has largely given up on school integration, the good news is that many individual school districts are taking steps to break up concentrations of school poverty. Today, more than 80 school districts, educating some 4 million students, consider socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment decisions. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, families choose from among a variety of magnet schools and then school officials honor those requests with an eye to ensuring that schools are socioeconomically balanced. The federal government should do far more to encourage these efforts and should embrace what Diane Ravitch has called for -- a federal Race to the Top program that rewards districts that desegregate their schools.

In 1954, the Supreme Court held up integration as both a goal and an advantage. Sixty years later, our nation is much more diverse, offering a renewed chance to demonstrate that diversity can work to all of our advantage. Recent education policies place too much emphasis on attaining and documenting basic skills, however, and far too little emphasis on leveraging diversity as a means to nurture the creativity and innovation that today's world demands. They also exacerbate the continued consignment of our black and brown children to our poorest schools. Realizing Brown's potential requires that we ensure every child the chance to learn and grow up in well-resourced, enriching classrooms that reflect and leverage our rich diversity.