In the latest issue of National Affairs, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax evaluates two strategies for improving the achievement of low-income students: promoting socioeconomic integration and creating “no excuses” charter schools. Wax is skeptical of both endeavors, and her essay concludes without much hope that America can make any meaningful strides in closing the achievement gap. However, she is especially critical of school integration, writing that “separate and unequal”—that is, the approach of no excuses charter schools—“is superior to, and more effective than, diverse and unequal” (the latter choice being her pessimistic characterization of integrated schools).
Is separate and unequal really as good as it gets in education? Research and the experiences of communities and school districts across the country show that we can do better. Although far from perfect, school integration offers one of the best paths for expanding opportunity for disadvantaged students, while also enriching educational experiences for all students.
While Wax frames her essay as a fresh take on the persistent problem of social and economic inequality, her critique of school integration is built on outdated research, a caricatured view of integration as assimilation, and an “all or nothing” approach to addressing the political and logistical challenges of integrating schools. Here are three key elements of what makes school integration a powerful intervention that Wax misses:
1. Dozens of studies, spanning fifty years, document the benefits of socioeconomically and racially diverse schools.
The long line of evidence on the benefits of integration goes back to the 1966 Coleman Report—a federally commissioned study which found that the socioeconomic background of students’ classmates impacts student performance more than any other school factor. This basic finding has been upheld by dozens of studies released in the decades following. For example, a 2013 study of high school students found that students at schools with high average socioeconomic status were 68 percent more likely to enroll as a four-year college than demographically similar peers in schools with low average socioeconomic status. A 2008 study found that students in mixed-income high schools showed 30 percent more growth in test scores from ninth to twelfth grade than peers with similar socioeconomic backgrounds in schools with concentrated poverty. And a 2010 meta-analysis of fifty-nine studies on school integration and math achievement found that “the current corpus of social science literature provides consistent and unambiguous evidence that attending a racially diverse school with low concentrations of poor children is positively related to mathematics outcomes for most students irrespective of their age, race, or family’s SES” (emphasis added).
Wax, however, engages with very little of this research. She briefly references the Coleman Report, a 2005 study of high school achievement, and a 2010 study of school and housing integration in Montgomery County, Maryland—all of which found strong positive effects from attending integrated schools—but she relies mainly on a 1990 analysis of neighborhood and school segregation by Christopher Jencks and Susan E. Mayer, which found “mixed effects.” Using this 27-year-old study as the cornerstone of her argument, Wax concludes that “the question of whether, how much, and under what circumstances going to school with more advantaged students benefits low-income or minority students is unsettled.” But even within the context of the limited research Wax cites, this agnostic conclusion is not justified. The mix of effects that Jencks and Mayer found included increased achievement for many groups of students in different grade levels and subjects, and no effect for white high school students—but no negative effects for any group of students. A mix of positive effects for some students and no effect for others is hardly an indictment of integration. Rather, it could be an argument that integration will indeed help close achievement gaps.
In practice, racial and socioeconomic integration frequently go hand-in-hand.
Throughout the essay, Wax tries to separate socioeconomic integration from racial integration, which also unnecessarily limits the discussion of the benefits of integration. Wax incorrectly states that the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 prohibited schools from considering race at all as a goal or factor in voluntary school integration plans. While this decision limited the ways in which schools and districts can consider race, race may still be a factor in integration plans under certain circumstances, and racial integration is often one of the desired outcomes of voluntary integration policies even if only socioeconomic factors are considered in assignment. Thus, in practice, racial and socioeconomic integration frequently go hand-in-hand. And as a new research brief from the National Coalition on School Diversity explains, socioeconomic integration and racial integration offer complementary but not interchangeable benefits. In addition to academic benefits, racial integration promotes increased racial tolerance, better critical thinking skills, and greater academic confidence.
2. The goal of integration is to bring the benefits of diversity to all students.
Wax mischaracterizes socioeconomic school integration as an attempt to impose “bourgeois, middle-class values” on poor children by placing them in classrooms with more affluent peers. In this, Wax’s observations are not entirely off base. But virtually all proponents of school diversity recognize that integration is not about adopting middle class norms, but rather seeks to deconcentrate poverty in schools, ensure that resources and provisions are shared with poor children, and provide academic and social benefits to all children. In fact, most believers in integration are equally concerned with the racial or socioeconomic isolation of white and high income students, who miss out on critical components of a strong, comprehensive education through their insularity.
This is not to say that researchers do not cite peer effects as part of the rationale for socioeconomic integration. There are concrete benefits to educating children in mixed income schools, and access to privileged peers is one portion of that. Research shows that middle-income families are more likely to raise children with the expectation of college attendance, for example, and those expectations can be contagious. And schools with large proportions of children in poverty must contend with an environment where large percentages of students are more likely to come to school hungry, without effective school supplies, or suffering from trauma. Although low-income children are not the only kids to experience these obstacles, the conditions of poverty are more likely to produce these effects, which create additional challenges and barriers in a school environment.
Perhaps most importantly, socioeconomic integration better ties the fates of the powerful to the fates of the marginalized.
Perhaps most importantly, socioeconomic integration better ties the fates of the powerful to the fates of the marginalized. When the child of the senator and the child of the janitor learn next to one another in the classroom, the senator’s advocacy for her own child’s access to better books, newer facilities, stronger teachers, challenging curriculums, fairer disciplinary practices, and innovative pedagogies directly impacts the child of the janitor who unfortunately possesses less social capital. It can also engender a sort of cross-class empathy, so that as affluent parents utilize their powers to create change and secure provisions for their own children, they must think about the needs of all children who contribute to the academic and social environment of the school.
Wax’s article conveniently omits that school diversity offers benefits to higher income and white children as well. Students who attend integrated schools report being more comfortable with people of different races, are more likely to seek out diverse spaces later in life, have lower levels of bias, are more satisfied with schools and more confident in their academic abilities, and possess stronger leadership skills. Diversity in schools also leads to greater creativity among students, elevated problem-solving and critical thinking skills, increased motivation and deeper learning. Her article’s failure to see that the benefits of integration work in both directions is telling.
It is also curious that Wax, herself a promoter of wrongheaded racial philosophies, chose to criticize the pro-integration position as deficit-based. Fundamentally, integration is a remedy for centuries of collusion between public and private actors to ensure that minorities and poor people remain separate and inherently unequal from those in positions of racial and economic power. School segregation, as it currently exists, is the nasty residue of government sponsored racism and widely accepted neglect of the poor and working classes. Wax, a law professor at University of Pennsylvania, has openly contended that while harms from the past have caused “dysfunctional behavioral patterns” in minorities, inequities “cannot really be corrected by outsiders.” She explains the current struggles of low-income and minority children by pointing to “differences in decision making style by class and race” and post-1960 “moral deregulation.” She accuses low-socioeconomic groups of “thinking locally” and being short-sighted, while concluding that wealthier families are more organized and have adhered more strongly to a traditional moral framework. For Wax, remedies to discrimination are futile because marginalized communities themselves have created a culture of poverty, rendering interventions and correctives to very real and troubling histories hopeless. Not only is this textbook deficit-model thinking, it is dangerously close to the racist and classist thinking that justifies the continued mistreatment and exclusion of poor, black, and brown people in America.
3. Integration is logistically and politically feasible in many communities.
The article’s bleak analysis of the political and logistical feasibility of school integration suffers from an overly simplistic, inappropriately narrow characterization of today’s school desegregation practices.
Wax argues that because most plans disrupt the neighborhood school model by requiring students to travel, these plans are “restricted in their ability to shift poor students to more affluent settings.” While she is correct in pointing out that many models of school desegregation do involve children going to a school that might not be closest to their residence, travel works in both directions, with both wealthy and low-income kids choosing to attend schools outside of their neighborhood boundaries. In Cambridge, MA, for example, students are seeing excellent academic outcomes under a controlled choice system, where all parents are given the opportunity to select the best three school options for their child regardless of distance from home, and the district ensures that those choices are honored while the schools remain economically balanced. Transportation is provided by the district so that children of all incomes, neighborhoods, and family backgrounds can safely get to and from their selected schools.
Sometimes school officials can also integrate schools by shifting existing school attendance zone boundaries. Seeing as neighborhood boundaries are man-made—and all too often shaped by intentional past and present discriminatory practices—school attendance zones likely map onto these constructions unless policymakers intervene. Districts that choose to integrate by simply shifting the lines of zones in ways that encourage racial and economic interaction can create policies that affect school demographics across the county, while continuing to minimize travel time.
And while Wax understandably maintains her skepticism about the demographic feasibility of socioeconomic integration, she intentionally overstates the challenge. First, she claims that benefits for poor students disappear once they constitute more than 20 percent of a school building—likely a misreading of Heather Schwartz’s study that the author herself has refuted. Although we certainly need more research around what the ideal mix of students should be, 20 percent is awfully low. Most research points to the strongest benefits of integration being found in schools that are no more than 50 percent low-income, as defined by free and reduced price lunch eligibility. This guideline is likely outdated, though, since it uses older data. Given that the increase in the number of FRPL eligible families has risen much faster and higher than the growth in the percentage of school aged children from families below the poverty line, this 50 percent number is likely much higher in 2017.
Secondly, Wax seems all too willing to abandon the opportunity for progress due to the unlikelihood of perfection. Many districts, while still struggling to design broader school diversity programs, have taken important first steps to improve the educational experiences of students where possible. While not a catch-all solution to pervasive segregation, Dallas’s Solar Preparatory School has attracted a diverse group of students to a socioeconomically integrated magnet program. The massive New York City Public Schools has sought to rezone a handful of elementary schools to better promote diversity, offers integration pilot program funds to economically isolated schools, and allows several schools to reserve seats for underprivileged kids in order to promote opportunity and diversity alongside one another. And finally, she omits the possibility of interdistrict plans, which provide cities and counties that might be racially and economically isolated the opportunity to better diversify. Hartford, CT, provides a strong example of a high poverty city that has been able to integrate an impressive percentage of its schools by engaging in a two-way school integration program with the surrounding, affluent suburbs.
Wax’s article implies that integration is a top-down act of social engineering, but reality shows us that voluntary integration programs are locally organized and supported, and are actually gaining popularity and prevalence. In 1996, when our colleague Rick Kahlenberg first started seeking out districts that voluntarily used socioeconomic status to integrate schools, he only could identify two. Today, there are one hundred districts and charters that we know of, and that number continues to grow.
Reality shows us that voluntary integration programs are locally organized and supported, and are actually gaining popularity and prevalence.
Citing Wake County in North Carolina as a failed and unstable integration plan, Wax neglects the fact that after Wake County’s conservative school board undid their longstanding integration plan in 2010, business leaders, parent groups, teachers, and students ousted those members and replaced them with new board that, by 2012, reinserted wording into the assignment policy that made minimizing concentrations of students from low-income families at each school an official goal.
In other places, desegregation programs have not been threatened by the rightful frustrations of local parents, but by legislatures or leaders with particular ideological agendas. Very recently, the Kentucky legislature introduced legislation that could have dismantled Jefferson County Public Schools’ (Louisville) durable and popular choice-based desegregation plan. The legislature pushed this forward over the strong objections of the local school board, parents, students, and community members. Ultimately, the measure failed, but if it would have passed, the state of Kentucky would have ignored the voices of a community that, when polled in 2011, agreed at 89 percent that school assignment should “ensure that students learn with students from different races and economic backgrounds.” When it comes to student assignment, the real “enormous social engineering effort” was the old system of assignment that took pains to separate children according to skin color.
Diversity isn’t easy, but it’s better than inequity.
While Amy Wax’s National Affairs article offers a number of critiques of school integration and other improvement efforts, it offers no real solutions. Instead, Wax argues for maintaining a system of segregated schools built by white supremacy and maintained through persistent failures of public policy to uplift poor children and families. This, she claims, is better than creating or encouraging diversity in schools where achievement gaps might narrow but “never” close, where adults might become tired from their efforts to “achieve the impossible” of social and academic equity. Wax might claim this is best for most students, but fundamentally, her explicitly stated preference for “separate and unequal” over schools that actively strive towards equality and diversity reveals that her own priorities rest with preserving the status quo over mitigating inequities for kids. The essay in National Affairs seems to be an effort to discredit an educational solution that compels its participants to gracefully engage with diverse people—and to face the challenges and victories that come along with that process. And her defeatist attitude toward the potential for success among minority and low-income children suggests that perhaps she herself could benefit from some time in integrated learning environments.