3 thoughts about the future of school integration

What follows is an
edited transcript of my remarks at a Century Foundation panel held on
Wednesday,
The Future
of School Integration
, about a new book by the same name. The speakers included the book’s editor, Richard
Kahlenberg, as well as contributors Stephanie Aberger, Marco Basile, and Sheneka
Williams, and fellow commenter Derek Black of Howard University’s Law School.

There are three points I want to make today.

  • It’s important that those of us who support
    socio-economic integration don’t oversell the evidence, and I’m worried that in
    the book and in today’s comments we’re doing some of that.
  • We shouldn’t pit controlled choice against other
    forms of school choice, especially charter schools.
  • We need to think of controlled choice not just
    as a means of integrating schools; we need to think of diverse schools as a
    choice in and of themselves.

Let me take each of these points in turn.

On not overselling
the evidence

I think it’s a mistake to say, as Marco did, that we’ve
known since the Coleman Report that integrated schools do better. We know that
there’s a relationship. Rick goes into this in his book, looking at NAEP scores
and other evidence, and you can see that in schools with more integration,
students perform better—especially poor and minority students. But that does
not necessary prove that school integration “works.”

Those of us who support school choice and school vouchers
used to like to point out the higher test scores and graduation rates for poor
kids in Catholic schools—and argue that therefore Catholic schools are better
than public schools. But critics rightfully argued that you can’t prove that
it’s the Catholic schools that are making the difference. There’s a selection
bias issue. There might be something about the families who are choosing
Catholic schools that is relating to the higher achievement, not necessarily
the schools themselves. That led to demand for random assignment studies in
which we could track kids that not only look the same on the surface (in terms
of their background and parental education and such) but had the same
motivation. They all entered a lottery, some got in, some didn’t, and we could
track their progress. And what we found was that there is an advantage for
Catholic schools but it’s smaller than we thought.

We probably have a similar situation when it comes to
socioeconomically integrated schools. We haven’t had many random assignment
studies. Heather Schwartz’s paper
is an important contribution to the research for that reason. But the Chris
Swanson study
that Marco cited, which found graduation rates to be 10
percentage points higher in socio-economically integrated high schools, is far
from gold-standard evidence. As Marco admits in his paper, the evidence is
“limited,” because of the selection bias problem.

So we have to be careful not to pretend that we know for
sure that if we integrate our schools we will see these huge benefits in terms
of increased student achievement and higher graduation rates. We might. But we
don’t know that for sure. It’s similar to the way in which we don’t know for
sure whether we’d see big gains if we sent more kids into Catholic or charter
schools.

Still, I personally find the evidence on integration
compelling. Not the evidence discussed here, or in the book, but some of the
peer effects research done by Rick Hanushek and Caroline Hoxby that examines the
composition of classrooms. What they both find is a strong relationship between
the composition of classrooms and student achievement. Mostly this has been
looked at in terms of race. As you have high concentrations of
African-Americans in a classroom, the African-Americans perform worse. Some scholars have
raised questions about these studies, but still, they are pretty compelling.

I strongly suspect that many of these
integrated schools we’re talking about don’t
necessarily have integrated classrooms.

So if we can get not only integrated schools but also
integrated classrooms there’s some evidence that you can have an impact on
achievement. But that brings us to another challenge.  I strongly suspect that many of these
integrated schools we’re talking about—especially magnet schools—don’t
necessarily have integrated classrooms. You have schools within schools where
there’s a population that’s mostly middle class / upper middle class in the
magnet program and the rest of the school is mostly poor. I’m not convinced
that we have much evidence that that’s going to do much good in terms of
raising achievement.

We have similar issues with gifted programs, honors
programs, and AP programs. But if you say to the upper middle class parents:
Not only do we want you to choose an integrated school, but we’re NOT going to
allow you to choose a gifted program or another opportunity for your kids to
get extra challenge—that’s going to be another political difficulty.

In other words, this is all much more complicated than some
of today’s conversation has indicated.

On not pitting
“controlled choice” against other forms of choice

This is a big mistake politically and strategically. There are a lot of influential people out
there who support charter schools and would be with us on
controlled choice, but who will be against us if it’s framed as one or the
other. We’ve heard from Stephanie that while we could be achieving a lot more
integration than we are today, for the foreseeable future there is still going
to be a LOT of schools with concentrated poverty. And the question then is: How
do we make those schools as high achieving and successful as possible?

My own view is that we look out there and see the KIPPs and
other “no excuses” charter schools, as well as some traditional public schools
and Catholic schools, that are serving high concentrations of poverty and are
doing an amazing job, and we should celebrate those examples and replicate
them, rather than saying “it can’t be done except with integration.” Because
we’ll never have 100 percent integration.

So let’s have two tracks: Let’s do everything we can to
integrate the schools, and for the schools that are going to have high
concentrations of poverty, let’s make sure that they are excellent as well.

On diverse schools as
a choice in and of themselves

Finally, my last point: The conversation that Rick has led
and that’s in the book is how to use controlled choice to get schools that are
more integrated. So we say, “OK, we know that middle class/ upper middle class
parents like things like language immersion schools, or Montessori schools, or
STEM. So we will develop magnet programs, put them in high poverty
neighborhoods, and convince affluent parents to cross into other communities
for their children’s schooling.”

I don’t have a problem with that, and if you can make it work,
and work out the logistics, great.

We’re missing an opportunity if we don’t think of
integrated schools as another brand of choice.

But we’re missing an opportunity if we don’t think of
integrated schools as another brand of choice. 
In other words, some parents want language immersion, some parents want
STEM, some parents want Montessori, some parents want something even more
progressive. And some parents really want integrated schools. I am hopeful that
there are many of those parents out there who would like to choose that kind of
a school for their child.

So, for example, we have in the charter school movement a very
important development recently in which there are a number of diverse charter
schools that are getting started: Capital City
here in DC, the Denver School of
Science and Technology
, High Tech
High
. These are excellent schools that have as their mission to be both
high achieving and to be diverse. And there’s a place within the charter school
movement for these integrated schools. Part of the message to parents is: Choose
the school not only because of the academic program that we offer but because
you value integration. Parents have signed up. And when they are excellent
schools, parents come in droves. Let’s respect parents enough to make diversity
a selling point as well.

You can watch the entire discussion from Wednesday's panel, The Future
of School Integration
, below.

 

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