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From the editor: Mixing it up

Posted by Jun 22nd, 2010.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the past eight years or so, I have done my best to advocate for the socioeconomic integration of schools. I can’t say I’ve had great success.

During my time at the Piton Foundation, I took two delegations of Denver school board members, central administrators, principals and community advocates to Raleigh, N.C., to experience first-hand the wonders of the Wake County Public School System’s integration program.

Despite the enthusiasm generated by these trips, we never succeeded in getting Denver Public Schools to make voluntary socioeconomic integration a priority for the district. Successive superintendents viewed the idea as a political third-rail.

Then, earlier this year, voters in Raleigh elected a new conservative majority to the school board, and the new board’s first move was to dismantle the integration program, which was doomed because it increasingly relied on busing the children of affluent parents long distances. Not to be cynical, but programs that try to force wealthy people to do things they don’t like always end up getting killed.

So I began to think that in this day and age, with the U.S. Supreme Court barring all race-based integration programs and the shining star of income-based integration relegated to the ash heap, mixing incomes in schools was dead as a strategy for improving public education.

But now I am feeling more optimistic. I spent the day Monday attending the first meeting of The Century Foundation’s Consortium on Socioeconomic School Integration. Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the foundation and the nation’s leading expert on socioeconomic integration, convened the gathering.

It was a great day and an impressive group. I attended with the understanding that the gathering was off the record, meaning I can’t quote anyone or say exactly who was there. But I can say this: 35 school districts showed up, representing states from coast to coast and in the heartland. Other attendees included researchers from Stanford University, Harvard University and Duke University.

Districts represented by either school board members, superintendents or senior administrators included some as large as about 200,000 students and as small as around 600. Urban, suburban, and rural districts had a place at the table.

And all of these districts are facing similar challenges. They are becoming increasingly diverse, racially and socio-economically. The number of children in poverty is increasing, across the board. And, in the post-busing era, all are seeking strategies to make sure all kids receive an equitable education.

What better way to promote equity than to do everything possible to make sure kids do not attend schools segregated by socioeconomic status? All 35 districts in attendance are struggling to figure out how to promote socioeconomic integration in a challenging political climate.

I found the commonalities fascinating. Districts of all sizes want to promote integration without being coercive. One popular strategy in almost all districts is creating dual-immersion language schools, which attract affluent parents and also have a natural population of immigrant kids, many of whom are low income.

Listening to district representatives, it also became clear that many suburban districts in particular are grappling with rapidly rising poverty rates. Socioeconomic integration is not some high-minded concept for these districts but rather a survival strategy.

Each district had five minutes to describe itself and its current situation. Afterwards, Kahlenberg boiled what we heard down to nine succinct points. They are worth producing here, in brief:

  1. Positive incentives must be provided to middle class and white parents to integrate. Examples: dual-language magnet schools. A “liberal” ideology alone won’t work.
  2. Solicit feedback from the community regarding what choices (of school models) to provide.
  3. Leverage community assets by partnering with private community institutions, such as hospitals.
  4. If we are to sell this convincingly, the primary argument must be about student achievement, even though we may hold other social goals for integration as well.
  5. Language matters. Example: “transportation” vs. “busing.”
  6. Simplicity is an important value in designing socioeconomic integration plans.
  7. Keep in mind the connection between schooling and housing. There may be possible partnerships with authorities in the housing sphere regarding integration goals.
  8. Magnet schools themselves can create new problems: jealousy among teachers pertaining to resources. What are the solutions to these problems? Controlled choice is one possible solution, which strives to make all schools in a district attractive so there is no division between magnets and non-magnets.
  9. Think about integration WITHIN school buildings. It’s not enough to integrate schools if the classrooms within these schools are segregated.

Did I hear some things that didn’t thrill me? Sure. There was a bit too much reflexive skepticism, bordering on hostility, about charter schools. Too many people, for my taste, also had a knee-jerk reaction against using standardized tests to measure student achievement. But there were more reasonable voices in the room as well.

The Century Foundation is seeking foundation funding to sustain the consortium and make it a powerful advocacy voice for a proven strategy to which many politicians are indifferent. I hope Kahlenberg and his team succeed in making this group a force in school reform for many years to come.

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10 Responses to “From the editor: Mixing it up”

  1. Frustrating when the obvious is clear yet avoided. After many years of working with teens, many if not most from poverty, I long ago began to question the notion of race as a guiding factor. With poverty seemingly on the increase, and if education is to remain committed to warehouses, this is an area of leverage.

    At the same time, I remain fascinated at the view we all so automatically take when we are present to race. Recently working with a group of young teens from South Africa, it was assumed that the one white girl in that contingent came from wealth and was a “token” throw in for the community, and the almost automatic perspective was only strengthened when it was discovered she attended a very exclusive private school. Of course, we would come to find that she attended the school by virtue of her mother being the school secretary.

  2. I would also like to add to the potential list of attractions for “mixing it up.” Schools of Purpose or maybe said in another way. . .schools with a particular focus of purpose. A kind of, ‘We stand to impact this. . .” whatever that is.

  3. Margaret Bobb says:

    Thanks for carrying the torch for socio-economic integration!
    Having taught for 18 years in DPS, I am fortunate to be a part of a school in Denver which proves the effectiveness of the model of socio-economic integration: East High School.
    Consistent with the results of David Rusk’s research, it is my personal experience that the “at risk” students at East (as defined by socio-economic status, NOT race) achieve at a higher level because they are part of a school culture of success and achievement. They are part of a norm that values and celebrates educational success as a basic expectation.
    The Angel Foundation, heterogeneous honors classes in geography and biology, mentoring programs, the “Academic Success” support classes, etc., are all part of a very intentional effort to close the achievement gap at East.
    The” education reformers” in Denver should be looking more carefully at this model of success and acting to replicate it.

  4. Holly Yettick says:

    Thanks for continuing to focus attention on this important issue, Alan. I am glad so many districts were represented because in order for economic integration to truly function, reforms must involve multiple school districts. That’s because too many districts are simply too segregated to permit meaningful within-district integration. Economically-integrated schools will necessarily draw kids from multiple school districts. In Colorado, we already permit kids to cross district lines. So, I see potential here.
    I also see potential in charter schools. I wish more would adopt models similar to the Denver School of Science and Technology, which encourages economic integration.

  5. Van Schoales says:

    I too think that this is critically important work. I wish there was more in depth research of schools like East, Odyssey, DSST, DIS and others to determine what’s working and what’s not for low-income students of color in integrated school settings. I’d love to see the latest data from East or other schools that are focused on narrowing gaps on how low-income and kids of color are graduating and prepared for college.

    Integration is an important goal but it can’t trump the need to have most students prepared for college regardless of race or income. A few point gains on standardized tests in one or two areas are hardly enough to merit integration as the primary tool for closing gaps and raising achievement. Too often traditional liberals see integration as an end instead of using it in conjunction with a suite of other interventions/school designs to dramatically raise student achievement for disadvantaged kids.

    We need to look more carefully at what is best for kids and provide all of the data to kids and their families about their likelihood of success in different kinds of schools. I think know a lot more than folks did 5, 10 or 20 yrs ago but we are far from having all of the answers.

  6. [...] more about the day at, a post by a journalist who was present. The day inspired me; we are moving in the right direction, [...]

  7. Mark Sass says:

    Margaret, can you support your statement that East has been effective with its socio-economic model. I have always thought that East had/has a rather significant achievement gap. I had read that East was “de-tracking” some classes but I had not seen any results.

  8. Holly Yettick says:

    I know it is not stylish or faddish to say right now but I think integration remains an important value in unto itself..kind of like school safety. However, that is not why I support it. I support economic integration because, based on the research I’ve seen, it improves student achievement:
    Here’s a research brief on the subject.

    This issue has come up quite a few times on this blog. Each time it comes up, someone says something like: “Yeah but what about the research?” Each time it has come up, people have posted various links to research on the link between academic achievement and integration.
    Here is another link to an article written by Alan and posted on the Piton Foundation site:

  9. Mark Sass says:

    I am aware of the research that supports integration. My question has to do with East specifically and how it has been implemented. Well intentions aside, throwing a well-researched reform at a problem does not always produce positive results. Integration is an important issue and one that I support. But, as you recognize, integration can be a very controversial concept. It is important to show it works as reflected in student achievemment data. Integration will be even more difficult to implement with diminishing budgets for schools. So, let’s see the results and if they are successful, let’s promote the idea.

  10. Alexander Ooms says:

    Seeing the comments from Margaret and Mark, I looked up the most recent CDE numbers for East, by ethnicity, for both proficiency and growth:

    Math: White (60% proficiency, 59% Median Growth); Black (13/51); Hispanic (19/52)
    Reading: White (93/57); Black (57/53); Hispanic (58/50)
    Writing: White (84/59) Black (33/62); Hispanic (41/58)

    EAST Average:
    Proficiency: White (79); Black (34); Hispanic (39)
    Growth: White (58); Black (55); Hispanic (53)

    DPS Average:
    Proficiency: White (68); Black (31); Hispanic (32)
    Growth: White (56); Black (52); Hispanic (49)

    East has a higher achievement gap in proficiency (42 points, compared to the DPS average of 37 points). East also has a slightly lower achievement gap in growth (4.0 points, compared to 5.3 for DPS).

    I don’t have a ton of context for these and hope someone else will have more nuanced thoughts, but what is clear here is the paradox that while East has higher academic growth for Black and Hispanic students than the DPS average, this growth rate is lower than for their White students. What this means that East is actually increasing, not decreasing, the achievement gap with ethnicity.

    The FLR numbers are harder, since at the same level CDE does not provide a non-FRL group (the comparison is G&T, ELL, IEP). But for FRL of East compared to the DPS average, the number are pretty comparable. East scores 2 points higher in proficiency and 1.3 points higher in growth. Now, this is certainly not meant to be definitive, and I hope someone digs into this deeper, but at first glance, I don’t see significant differences with FRL between East and DPS overall.

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