How can diverse schools meet the
academic needs of both poor and
affluent students—and, at the same
time, respond to conflicting parent
preferences regarding schooling?
Michael J. Petrilli
We’re in the midst of “the Great Inversion,” writes Alan Ehrenhalt (2012), a journalist
and analyst at the Pew Center on the
States. Put simply, in the United States,
affluent people are moving back to the
cities as lower-income people move
out to the suburbs. The social ramifications of this flip-flop are far-reaching.
One positive outcome is the potential
for greater school integration along
race and class lines as both cities and
suburbs become more diverse.
There’s little doubt that U.S. schools
could stand to be better integrated.
Eighty-seven percent of white students
attend majority-white schools, even
though such youngsters make up just
over half of the public school population. Only 14 percent of white students attend “multicultural” schools (in
which three racial groups each make up
at least 10 percent of the pupil population). Meanwhile, about 40 percent
of black and Hispanic students attend
schools that are intensely segregated,
serving few white students. This percentage has risen from about one-third
in the late 1980s (Orfield, 2009).
There’s also little doubt that segregation is, in general, harmful for
students, especially poor and minority
students. “Peer effects” studies by
scholars such as Eric Hanushek
(Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2009) and
Caroline Hoxby (2000) have shown
that black pupils learn less in segregated classrooms than in diverse ones.
Analyses by the Century Foundation’s
Richard Kahlenberg (2001) have demonstrated that low-income students do
worse in college and the job market
when they attend segregated schools,
probably because they haven’t had a
chance to learn the norms of middle-class America.
If the Great Inversion continues—and
greater neighborhood diversity yields
greater school diversity—educators will
have an excellent opportunity to achieve
the integration goals that have eluded us
since Brown v. Board of Education. But it
won’t be easy.
Schools that serve a diverse pupil
population—especially an economi-
cally diverse population—face two
challenges. The first concerns academic
diversity: Poor students tend to come to
school significantly behind their more
affluent peers. Meeting the needs of
both groups of students is hard, even
before getting to the issues of individual
differences. The second challenge
concerns cultural diversity: Parenting
styles among poor and affluent families
tend to differ greatly, leading to dif-
ferent expectations (and preferences)
The Academic Diversity Challenge Schools that serve both poor and affluent students tend to have an enormous range in student achievement levels. On average, middle-class children are two to three grade levels ahead of their low-income peers at any given time, which makes it that much arder for teachers to instruct all stu- dents of the same age together. There are no perfect solutions to this problem. One option is to group stu- dents by achievement, with the high achievers in one classroom and the lower achievers in another. But in socio- economically diverse schools, that practice tends to result in classrooms segregated by class, and often race—and who wants to create integrated schools with segregated classrooms? The other option is to mix all the students together and ask teachers to