One reason why affluent, liberal parents often choose segregated schools, even when that may not be their intention

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School segregation has been in the news a lot lately, with journalists examining the policy decisions that cause it, and the parental decisions that perpetuate it. See, for example, Kate Taylor’s New York Times article, “Family by Family, How School Segregation Still Happens,” and Patrick Wall’s Atlantic article, “The Privilege of School Choice,” subtitled, “When given the chance, will wealthy parents ever choose to desegregate schools?”

In 2012, the Fordham Institute published The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools, by now-Fordham president Michael J. Petrilli. The following excerpt examines why it is that upper-middle-class parents often put other considerations ahead of school diversity.

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Naomi Calvo is a recently minted Harvard Ph.D. who immersed herself in Seattle’s “controlled choice” program for her dissertation. The intent of that effort, which offered parents public school options from across the city, was to better integrate Seattle’s sharply segregated schools. The program required all parents to list their school preferences. Calvo later pored over these choices to look for patterns. How important was the proximity of the school to home? Test scores? Demographics? Did these preferences vary by race and class?

Calvo spoke to parents about their decision-making processes. One vignette is particularly telling:

One morning I interviewed Sylvie, a vivacious middle class white mother whose daughter attended a popular alternative school. Sylvie was thrilled with the school—it was a perfect fit for her shy daughter, a nurturing close-knit community with project-based learning and a “child-centric” curriculum. The principal knew every student, and kids called teachers by their first names. The one downside, Sylvie said, was that the school was not as diverse as she would like. For some reason it had trouble attracting students of color, particularly black students.

Later that afternoon I interviewed Bernice, a middle class black mom who had chosen a large traditional school for her “social butterfly” daughter. Although the school had low test scores and a mediocre reputation, Bernice had been impressed when she visited. She thought the principal was pushing kids to excel, and liked the “collegebound” program that encouraged students to start thinking about college early. She was also attracted by the curriculum, which focused on basic skills. As Bernice described the different schools she considered and the various factors she weighed in choosing among them, I noticed that she did not mention Sylvie’s alternative school as an option. Had she, I asked, considered sending her daughter there? “Oh no,” Bernice replied. “That school, it doesn’t have any discipline or structure whatsoever. Do you know,” she went on in a horrified voice, “they even let the kids call teachers by their first names!”

Of course, we ought not generalize from this one story; not all affluent white parents want progressive, open-ended schools, and not all black parents want highly structured, traditional ones. But there is some truth to this stereotype. It’s hardly a secret: For decades, magnet school administrators have been placing Montessori schools in black neighborhoods as a way to draw white families, and “back-to-basics” schools in white neighborhoods to draw black families. And it works.

In the early 1990s, another Harvard graduate student, Maureen Allenberg Petronio, studied the public school choice program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She found that parents tended to be either traditionalists, who wanted their kids to learn basic skills and get the “right answers,” or alternative-school aficionadas, who sought environments that “stimulated curiosity and encouraged exploration,” as she put it. Guess what? The alternative school parents were generally white professionals, while the traditionalists came from poorer backgrounds.

More recent studies have confirmed these differences in parents’ educational values. Economists Lars Lefgren and Brian Jacob looked at data from an unnamed school district regarding parents’ requests for particular teachers. (About one in five parents made such requests every year.) What they found was that parents in more affluent schools placed a higher priority on teachers who created an enjoyable classroom environment, while parents in poor schools focused more on teachers who could raise student achievement.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that individuals from different cultures and backgrounds might have different values and preferences when it comes to their children’s education. However, it’s not just a matter of preferences. Bernice, the black mom, was right to be alarmed by the alternative school and its lack of structure, because those types of schools have tended to be ineffective for minority kids. On the other hand, a highly structured school would have repelled Sylvie and may have bored her daughter. These moms haven’t merely figured out what kind of school they would like for their daughters; they may have determined which type of school would educate them best.

Progressive Education: Good for “White Folks” Only?

In 1986, Lisa Delpit published “Skills and Other Dilemmas of a Progressive Black Educator,” an article that soon became one of the most requested in the Harvard Educational Review’s history. Delpit was born in Louisiana, where, as she put it, her teachers “in the pre-integration, poor black Catholic school that I attended corrected every other word I uttered in their effort to coerce my Black English into sometimes hypercorrect Standard English forms acceptable to black nuns in Catholic schools.”

But in her own teacher training, she learned from her professors that this “traditional” approach to education was shortsighted or even racist; that “people learn to write not by being taught ‘skills’ and grammar, but by ‘writing in meaningful contexts.’” She took these theories and tried to implement them in an integrated school in Philadelphia. “The black kids went to school there because it was their only neighborhood school,” she wrote ruefully. “The white kids went to school there because their parents had learned the same kinds of things I had learned about education. As a matter of fact, there was a waiting list of white children to get into the school. This was unique in Philadelphia—a predominantly black school with a waiting list of white children. There was no such waiting list of black children.”

While the older black teachers at the school focused on traditional skills such as handwriting and arranged their students’ desks in parallel rows, Delpit embraced all of the progressive methods: open classrooms, learning stations, carpeted sitting areas instead of desks, math games, even weaving to teach fine motor skills.

“My white students zoomed ahead,” Delpit wrote. “They worked hard at the learning stations. They did amazing things with books and writing. My black students played the games; they learned how to weave; and they threw the books around the learning stations. They practiced karate moves on the new carpets. Some of them even learned how to read, but none of them as quickly as my white students. I was doing the same thing for all my kids—what was the problem?”

Delpit eventually adopted more traditional methods, which helped her black students improve their reading and writing skills. That’s not to say that she rejected the tenets of progressive education entirely. But her article sparked an enormous response from other black teachers, who believed that the fashionable progressive methods were good for “white folks” but not for kids of color. And those teachers might have been right.

Poor Kids, Promising Results

So if progressive education—at least the kind that downplays the teaching of knowledge and skills—is not generally the best approach for the neediest kids, what is? What kinds of curriculum, pedagogy, and culture are seen in schools that teach disadvantaged children effectively?

One of the most compelling investigations of high-performing high-poverty schools is David Whitman’s Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. Whitman, a former U.S. News reporter, looked at six highly successful secondary schools—four charter schools, one Catholic school, and one regular public school. All are achieving phenomenal results as measured by test scores, graduation rates, and success in college, and all serve predominantly poor and minority students.

Whitman’s unique contribution was to identify a secret ingredient in the schools’ success: They are all benignly paternalistic:

Each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think but how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values . . . The schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Students are required to talk a certain way, sit a certain way, and dress a certain way.

For example, Whitman wrote about the Cristo Rey Academy, a Jesuit school in Chicago that sends high school students to internships in professional office environments.

The dress code . . . is remarkably detailed—and sure not to send teen hearts racing. Boys wear long-sleeved cotton or poplin shirts with collars and buttons and free of lettering and logos. Shirts must be buttoned all the way up and worn over plain white undershirts. A solid black or brown belt must be worn at all times. Trousers must have a crease and hem in the leg, and pants must be worn at the waistline. Leather or leather-like shoes in solid black or brown must hold a shine. A boy’s hair cannot be long enough to cover his collar or longer than a #2 clipper attachment. Boys are shown, and practice, how to tie a tie. All the markings of teenhood and teen rebellion—earrings, facial piercings, sun glasses, or corn rows—are flatly forbidden.

The dress code for girls is similarly drab: blouses buttoned all the way up, no white socks, no tight pants, no earrings larger than a quarter, and only soft colors used for eye shadow. Wearing a watch is recommended. But the watches cannot have sports logos or cartoon figures on the timepiece.

Ready to enroll your kids?

Many affluent parents won’t send their children to “paternalistic” schools because they’re worried that the experience would be stultifying. Like Sylvie, they prefer something much more warm and fuzzy, progressive, and creative. Yet the evidence is clear that many poor students would flounder in such a laid-back environment, that they generally benefit from highly structured lessons, an initial focus on basic skills, the development of background knowledge, and careful cultivation of their habits, behavior, and aspirations.

As researcher Naomi Calvo put it to me bluntly: “The types of reforms that are considered best practice for disadvantaged kids are exactly what middle-class parents hate. I don’t know how you are going to have a meeting of the minds on that.” When asked about the attributes they want their children to develop in school, affluent parents tend to name “creativity” and “thinking outside the box.” Poor parents, on the other hand, “don’t use language like that,” Calvo said. They speak in more concrete terms, and are focused on making sure their kids can read and do math and get ready for college.

A school can’t be both paternalistic and loosey-goosey, both structured and open-ended. Students either call their teachers by their first names or they don’t. Either they wear uniforms or they don’t. It’s hard for schools to meet the needs of poor kids while also meeting the expectations of affluent parents.

And that is one of many “diverse schools dilemmas”: It’s hard to come up with a type of school that would appeal to both Bernice and Sylvie and serve both of their daughters well. It may be possible, but it’s surely challenging, for an integrated school to meet the needs of a diverse student body effectively, when backgrounds, needs, and preferences vary so significantly.

Epilogue: In the five years since I wrote this, there have been several important developments. First, many of the “No Excuses” schools that Whitman wrote about have worked to become more flexible, especially when it comes to student behavior. Second, a new crop of charter schools that are “diverse by design” have sprouted up across the country, trying to prove that it is, indeed, possible to create schools that appeal to parents across lines of class and race, and serve all of their students well. I hope both efforts succeed, but we shouldn’t underestimate the challenges. –MJP 

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.