THE BLOG

Memo to Department of Education: Diverse Classrooms Create a Better America

10/07/2013 04:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The value of integrated schools was hotly debated in the 60s and 70s, as federal courts forced many urban school districts to desegregate their classrooms. Today, with our schools more segregated than they were in the 1980s, the interest in integrated education is heating up again, as evidence mounts that children of color, as well as white students, benefit from sharing classroom experiences.

The federal Department of Education has recognized that "providing students with diverse, inclusive educational opportunities from an early age is crucial to achieving the nation's educational and civic goals" -- and yet most of the Department's key competitive grant programs do not recognize school diversity as a priority, and the Department's draft "Strategic Plan" for the second term does not include school diversity as a central goal.

There is plenty of evidence as to why the Education Department's policies need to change so they reflect the importance of diversity in classrooms.

The racial achievement gap in schools narrowed most during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period that coincided with when U.S. schools were the most integrated, according to the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Moreover, Dr. Rucker C. Johnson, an Associate Professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley, studied the lives of black students who attended desegregated schools between 1954 and 1990. He found that blacks who spent at least five years in desegregated schools earned 25 percent more than their counterparts who lacked that opportunity. In fact, the study found that when these students reached their 30s and 40s, they were healthier, and were the physical equivalent of being seven years younger.

A recent study by the Connecticut Department of Education found that Hartford students who attended voluntary integration programs last year with a mix of suburban and city students performed better in math, reading, writing and science. The percentage of students who achieved at or above proficiency on state tests was 20 to 40 percentage points higher for Hartford students in racially and economically diverse classrooms. These raw numbers are consistent with several decades of research on the benefits of integrated education for all children (see www.school-diversity.org).

What is usually underappreciated is that white students also benefit from school diversity. A recent research paper by the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD), "How Non-Minority Students Also Benefit from Racially Diverse Schools," demonstrates how white pupils prosper in integrated environments. Students in diverse classrooms are exposed to complex classroom discussions and also develop better critical thinking and problem-solving skills than their counterparts in racially homogenous schools. Students also benefit long term when stereotypes and prejudice are reduced.

Meanwhile, new concerns are surfacing about diminishing integration in higher education, which is linked to patterns of segregation in K-12 education.

Anthony P. Carnevale, Director of the Georgetown Univ. Ctr. On Education & the Workforce, and Jeff Stohl, Research Director of the Georgetown Univ. Ctr. on Education & the Workforce, completed a study that documents the growing gap between the higher education opportunities for African Americans and Hispanics versus those available to whites.

Their study found that between 1995 and 2009, more than 80 percent of new white students attending college went to the country's 468 most selective colleges. At the same time, more than 70 percent of new African American and Hispanic students went to the 3,250 two-and four-year open-access colleges. Behind the numbers, it means that higher education in America is becoming more segregated. Or as Carnevale and Stohl put it, "Whites, African Americans and Hispanics are on separate and unequal pathways."

With the percentage of people of color in the general population growing each year, it's imperative that communities support efforts to integrate their classrooms and create the best learning environments for all of the students. It is well proven that life outcomes -- job status, health, housing, wealth, and other factors -- are linked to education. If quality education is not provided to a broad range of children, we can anticipate that gaps in the health and earning power between whites and people of color will continue to grow in the future.

School integration at the K-12 level, as well as in in higher education, needs to be a national priority -- and needs to be given a central role in the Department of Education's Strategic Plan.

Philip Tegeler is executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, a civil rights policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Receive PRRAC's Bimonthly Updates by clicking HERE. PRRAC is a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD). NCSD is a network of national civil rights organizations, state and local educational leaders, and academic researchers who study the impacts of school diversity. The Coalition supports local efforts to expand school diversity, promotes broader public awareness of the benefits of integration, and seeks a stronger commitment to racial and economic school integration at the federal level. For more information on the benefits of school diversity, see the website of the National Coalition on School Diversity, at www.school-diversity.org