New York City is among the most diverse places on earth, and has a strong tradition of progressive politics; however, it simultaneously has some of the most segregated schools in the entire country. In 2017, this disconnect led Mayor Bill de Blasio to appoint the School Diversity Advisory Group—an assembly of more than forty researchers, educators, social justice activists, and students—to make recommendations on how to better integrate the city’s schools by both race and class.
Today, the group, of which I am a part, released its preliminary report, which outlines a path forward for the city and its families. In the background of the advisory group’s deliberations were two nagging questions that have historically bedeviled school diversity efforts in urban America: How can you integrate schools that have relatively few middle-class students? And won’t efforts to disrupt patterns of segregation face insurmountable political opposition, particularly from privileged parents?
How to Make Progress
One important theme of the report is that while school integration cannot work everywhere in New York City in the immediate future, that is no excuse for giving up on those areas of the city where forward movement is possible: in the numerous mixed-income and racially diverse neighborhoods whose schools educate more than 300,000 students. Moreover, the politics of integration are clearly shifting in New York. What was once considered a “third rail” issue is now a stated top priority for the current chancellor of New York City public schools.
While school integration cannot work everywhere in New York City in the immediate future, that is no excuse for giving up on those areas of the city where forward movement is possible.
That was not always the case. In 2017, when I was asked to join the five-member executive committee of the advisory group, even though it was to be chaired by the respected Maya Wiley of the New School, Hazel Dukes of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and José Calderón of the Hispanic Federation, a part of me was skeptical. Was the creation of the advisory group a classic bureaucratic move to postpone and defer a politically thorny issue? The school chancellor at the time, Carmen Fariña, was hardly a school integration champion. At her worst moment, she had proposed that one way to bring children of different backgrounds together was to create a system of “pen pals” across segregated schools. The school district’s initial plan for integration was widely criticized for setting goals that were unambitious and could be achieved merely by dint of demographic trends.
Partway through the advisory group’s work, however, Fariña retired and de Blasio hired a dynamic new chancellor, Richard Carranza. Carranza identified combatting school segregation as a top priority. Last year, referencing the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregation, he said: “We’ve been admiring this issue for 64 years! Let’s stop admiring and let’s start acting.”
During Carranza’s tenure, he and Mayor de Blasio have proposed an initiative to diversify New York City’s elite specialized high schools and have approved a major plan in Brooklyn’s Community School District 15 to integrate the district’s middle schools.
In the report, the advisory group sets out some bold, and necessary, goals for integrating schools. In the short term, each school’s demographic makeup must be brought within 10 percentage points above or below the representation of each racial group found within each of New York City’s thirty-two community school districts. The group also calls for schools to have what research suggests is a healthy socioeconomic mix, in which between 30 percent and 70 percent of students are eligible for subsidized lunch.
Each school’s demographic makeup must be brought within 10 percentage points above or below the representation of each racial group found within each of New York City’s thirty-two community school districts.
The group does not recommend achieving these goals through compulsory busing. Instead, it highlights the success of equitable choice models used in many school districts that allow students to choose from a variety of schools, while the school district has the final say in honoring those choices with an eye to integration. This practice can overcome residential segregation by marrying school choice with fairness guidelines that promote equity.
Bold and Necessary Goals
These new racial and socioeconomic goals, if adopted by New York City, would be enormously important for kids for two big reasons.
First, research finds that all students benefit from being in classrooms with children of different backgrounds. The learning is deeper and more creative when students can discuss issues with those who bring very different life experiences to the classroom. Moreover, our democracy benefits when children attend diverse schools. A white child who shares a classroom with a Mexican American or Arab American classmate may be less likely, as an adult, to vote for a demagogue who tries to vilify those groups.
Second, as a matter of social justice, integrated schools provide greater opportunities than do economically segregated ones. Low-income students can do amazing things if given the right environment, but fifty years of research suggests high-poverty schools are marked, on average, by weaker principals and teachers, lower expectations, and higher levels of disorder—far from the environment that they, or any child, needs to succeed.
The data available bear out this point. On the National Assessment for Educational Progress in mathematics, low-income fourth graders in mixed-income schools are as much as two years ahead of low-income fourth graders in high-poverty schools. New data released as part of the advisory group’s report shows that in New York City, low-income students in mixed-income schools (30–70 percent low income) are 45 percent more likely to pass the English Language Arts exam and 61 percent more likely to pass the Math exam than are low-income students in high poverty schools (those above 70 percent low-income) (see Figure 1.).
Arts exam and 61 percent more likely to pass the Math exam than are low-income students in high poverty schools (those above 70 percent low-income) (see Figure 1.).
Given New York City’s demographics—in which 74 percent of public school students, citywide, are low-income—achieving the 30–70 percent goal at every school in the city is not immediately attainable. But nine of New York City’s community school districts in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island have sufficient socioeconomic diversity to meet the target. These nine community districts educate 330,338 students—which, if combined, would constitute an educational unit bigger than all but four of the nation’s 14,000 school districts. We should begin with them: while not locally comprehensive, it will still have a very powerful regional impact, and will set an impressive precedent for the rest of the nation to boot.
Moreover, the ease with which socioeconomically integrated schools can be created could grow if current trends continue. Between the 2006–07 and 2016–17 academic years, the share of middle-class children in New York City public school kindergarten classes grew, while the proportion of low-income students dropped from 80 percent to 69 percent. Also, if New York City can create more high-performing socioeconomically integrated schools, it may be able, over time, to attract a subset of families now using private schools. Today, 19 percent of New York City students attend private school—roughly double the national average. But Denver has shown that creative school programs can attract more families to public schools: between 2009 and 2018, the share of Denver students attending private schools declined from 13.2 percent to 7.9 percent. The same sort of progress could be made in New York City.
Immediate Measures and Next Steps
In the meantime, what can be done for New York City public school students who attend racially isolated, high-poverty schools? The advisory group report includes a series of detailed recommendations around equitable resources, culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy, restorative justice school discipline policies, and greater faculty diversity. These recommendations apply to all schools, whether they have successfully become integrated yet or not, and therefore many of them can be applied right away—and, we believe, should be.
And the advisory group will be continuing our work in tandem with the city’s bold plans for its schools: its work is not yet complete. In coming months, it will grapple with additional hot button items, such as how to address the inequities created by gifted and talented programs in the elementary schools and the widespread use of academic screens in middle and high schools. How should the public schools balance the need to reduce the segregation engendered by such programs while avoiding unintended consequences that may arise from changes to the program? What set of reforms could reduce segregation and continue to ensure that schools draw from a broad cross section of families—the very prerequisite of integration itself?
Adopting these recommendations would help Mayor de Blasio make good on his animating vision, outlined when he first ran for office, of moving New York beyond its status as “a tale of two cities.”
In the meantime, the advisory group’s preliminary report outlines critical recommendations that will help bridge the divide between the city’s progressive values and its segregated public schools. Adopting these recommendations would help Mayor de Blasio make good on his animating vision, outlined when he first ran for office, of moving New York beyond its status as “a tale of two cities.”