On December 7, 2017, TCF senior fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg and policy associate Kimberly Quick presented testimony at the New York City Council Committee on Education’s Oversight Hearing on Diversity in New York City Schools. In his testimony, Richard Kahlenberg describes why school diversity is important, and proposes ten important ideas for the promotion of effective school integration in the city. Below, Kimberly Quick lends additional evidence to Richard Kahlenberg’s testimony, then goes on to describe other necessary policy changes that will ensure integrated schools’ success, in particular those pertaining to tracking and disciplinary disparities.
Thank you for your invitation to testify before the New York City Council Committee on Education’s Oversight Hearing on Diversity in New York City Schools. I’m heartened that conversations around race, equity, and desegregation are a significant part of NYC’s commitment to expanding powerful and effective educational opportunities to all students.
My name is Kimberly Quick, and I am a policy associate at The Century Foundation, a non-profit think tank with offices in New York City and Washington, DC. There I research and write about educational equity, paying particular attention to the academic and civic benefits of racial and socioeconomic integration and the continuing work of creating just and inclusive environments for children in diverse spaces.
I’ll begin by echoing my colleague Richard Kahlenberg. Dozens of studies, spanning fifty years, document the benefits of socioeconomically and racially diverse schools. Nationally, students in integrated schools have higher average test scores, are more likely to enroll in college, have lower rates of bias and are more comfortable with diversity, feel more satisfaction in schools, and have elevated problem solving and critical thinking ability. 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 did 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 [socioeconomic status].”
While it’s critical to recognize—and design policies around—the fact that school diversity is beneficial for all children, we also must acknowledge that desegregation alone does not guarantee equity. Within school, even those that are considered diverse, antiquated systems and practices too often preserve segregation. I intend to discuss two of those practices today: tracking and disciplinary disparities.
Tracking is the practice of designating students for separate educational paths based, presumably, on their educational performance as teens or younger. Certainly not all schools and districts that frequently use academic tracking to sort students are bad actors, but the historical roots of the practice suffer from classist and racist undertones. Schools used tracking to ensure that wealthy students from certain families were prepared for higher education and “gentleman’s” professions, while others from working-class backgrounds were directed to coursework that sought to prepare them for a skill or trade. As courts began more rigorous enforcement of race-based school desegregation, tracking evolved into a means to prevent white flight from the public-school system and maintain racial separation on the classroom level. Today, tracking is the norm, and evidence indicated that it is a major driver of the pervasive achievement gap, with one study indicating that it accounts for 37 percent of the gap between rich and poor students.
Investigations into tracking also reveal that it is not always tightly correlated to prior academic performance. In 2014, parents filed complaints against a New Jersey district, South Orange Maplewood, after their young black daughter was denied entry into an advanced-level math course, despite having qualified grades and test scores. After looking into the case, investigators found that, not only was the child prepared for the higher-level coursework, but that her case fit into a pattern of decision making that left white students filling 73 percent of upper level math courses while constituting only 44 percent of the school’s middle school population. Nationally, low-income and black and hispanic children are less likely to be recommended for and enrolled in gifted and talented programs. In New York City, the implications of tracking are even more widespread, as this practice occurs both within schools and between them, with entire schools designated for identified high-achievers.
Some schools and districts have found innovative ways to push back against this trend. Stamford Public School System in Connecticut is a diverse but majority-minority and free and reduced-price lunch-eligible school district. In 2005, under the leadership of superintendent Josh Starr, the district began a series of interventions to begin to dismantle the tracking system. Stamford began teacher training programs to provide instructors with tools for lesson differentiation, eliminated ability grouping in elementary school classes, replaced five rigid tracks in middle school with two flexible ones and allowed for student movement, and created open access to honors and AP courses in high school. From 2010 to 2014, the percentage of black and hispanic students taking AP courses doubled and achievement gaps between student subgroups decreased while achievement rose across all groups.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) sought to reduce barriers to entry in selective enrollment schools through an innovative admissions process that employs nuanced measures of privilege and disadvantage to ensure that the talents of marginalized students are recognized in a competitive admissions process. This helps to ensure that the most popular and challenging selective schools provide diverse and inclusive learning environments, rather than act as spaces where the already advantages isolate themselves. Using socioeconomic factors within a census tract such as median family income, adult educational attainment, percentage of single family household, and percentage of population speaking a language other than English, CPS designates an SES tier for each census tract in the city. The district then admits student based on the test scores of those in their same tier. A total of 30 percent of available seats are filled solely using academic criteria from a city-wide pool, but the remaining seats are filled in rank order from the lists that rank applicants within each of the four SES tiers, with an even number of students matriculating from each tier. Chicago’s most selective schools better reflect the diversity of the city than do selective schools in similar districts, and the income and racial achievement gaps in these schools is exceptionally small.
Nuanced measures of privilege and disadvantage help to ensure that the most popular and challenging selective schools provide diverse and inclusive learning environments.
Tracking contributes to segregation by separating students according to a definition of “ability” that too often suffers from racialized and classist perceptions of potential. Similarly, disciplinary disparities can stem—at least in part—from false but long-conditioned perceptions of black and brown criminality. These beliefs do not disappear simply because a school is diverse. This work is not only about making students feel a sense of fairness; it has serious academic effects. Critically, research shows that reliance on exclusionary school discipline (expulsions, suspensions, and arrests in schools) deprive students of learning time, and can lead to students later falling behind or leaving school.
Child Trends found that a majority of school suspensions are for nonviolent offenses, and another study determined that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for relatively minor infractions. This is particularly true for black children, who are more likely to be suspended, expelled, arrested, or referred to law enforcement from preschool through high school. Black students are suspended at a rate three times greater than white students; while they represent 16 percent of national student enrollment, they comprise 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students who were subject to a school-related arrest. Other research indicates that black children are most often disciplined for behaving disrespectfully, loitering, or being noisy, whereas their white schoolmates are most often disciplined for less subjective offenses such as smoking or other substance abuse at school, skipping classes, or vandalism.
As the federal Department of Education toys with rescinding Obama-era guidance that sought to close racial gaps in suspensions, expulsions, and restraints for children of color in schools, New York City’s public schools must remain vigilant in their commitment to correcting existing inequities. The city must continue to collect data about how disciplinary measures are applied to students of color, low-income students, and students with special needs. It should also consider banning suspensions for minor infractions such as “willful defiance,” and implementing restorative conflict resolution practices in its schools—particularly for nonviolent offenses.
I will end my comments by again commending this committee and NYC education leaders for tackling this important equity and justice issue. School segregation originated as the government-mandated, institutionalized oppression and marginalization of children of color, maintained through both law and private choices. To allow it to persist as it does today signals to children that we either agree with that discriminatory system, or that, because it is difficult to undo, Americans and New Yorkers lack the will to dismantle injustice. Thank you to the Committee on Education for refusing to be complacent in the face of this ugly legacy and for taking steps to create a stronger and fairer education system. Thank you for the opportunity to testify.