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 below, Kahlenberg describes the state of school diversity in the city and the state at large, as well as what becomes possible when diversity is improved. He concludes with ten ideas which New York City should consider in order to improve integration in its schools.

Be sure to also read Kimberly Quick’s testimony, in which she contributes additional supporting evidence to Kahlenberg’s testimony, then goes on to describe other necessary policy changes that will ensure integrated schools’ success.

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 commend the Council for taking on this critical issue.

My name is Richard D. Kahlenberg. I am a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization, where I have researched and written about ways to promote equal educational opportunity through socioeconomic and racial integration for more than two decades. I am also a member of the Executive Committee of the New York City School Diversity Advisory Group. I am speaking today as an individual and not on behalf of other members of the Advisory Group. I will begin by discussing the benefits of school diversity and then suggest ten ideas for improving diversity in New York City.

The Benefits of School Diversity

When I began research on school integration in 1996, there were just two school districts in the United States that explicitly considered socioeconomic status in student assignment policies in order to bring children of different economic and racial backgrounds together to learn. Today, my colleagues Halley Potter, Kimberly Quick, and Elizabeth Davies have identified 100 districts and charter schools that do so, including several community school districts in New York City.

Five decades of research suggest that a socioeconomically and racially diverse educational environment provides better educational opportunities for school children than economically and racially segregated schooling. This research finds two distinct benefits of integrated schools: (1) all students benefit from the exchange of ideas and learning that comes in a racially and economically integrated school; and (2) low-income students, in particular, benefit from avoiding the harms associated with concentrated school poverty.

Research finds that the benefits of diversity run in all directions. Amy Stuart Wells of Teachers College, Columbia University and her colleagues found in a 2016 Century Foundation report that school diversity benefits middle-class and white students as well as low-income students and students of color in numerous ways. There is increasing evidence that “diversity makes us smarter,” a finding that selective colleges long ago embraced and increasing numbers of young parents are coming to appreciate at the K–12 level. The authors write: “researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving.”

Scholars also find benefits from avoiding schools that have concentrated poverty. It is possible for high-poverty schools to perform well, but it is exceedingly rare. Economically mixed schools are twenty-two times as likely to be high performing as high-poverty schools. Indeed, low-income fourth grade students given the chance to go to middle-class schools are as much as two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics. Rigorous research in Montgomery County, Maryland finds that students in low-income families randomly assigned to public housing units (and corresponding public schools) in low-poverty and high-poverty communities performed far better over time in economically integrated than high-poverty areas, even though schools in high-poverty communities spent $2,000 more per pupil.

There is close to a social-science consensus that economically and racially integrated schools are good for children

Although there is close to a social-science consensus that economically and racially integrated schools are good for children, there is an outdated but durable political consensus that little can be done about it. Nevertheless, lessons from districts examined by The Century Foundations suggest that while school integration is often politically challenging, key steps—such as the use of choice and incentives—can smooth the path to community support.

Ten Ideas for Promoting School Diversity in New York City

As you know, schools in New York State have been identified as the most segregated in the country. I am pleased that the Council, the Mayor, and the Chancellor have begun a process of seeking to address this problem in New York City. The 2017 report “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools” was an important step forward, outlining concrete goals and steps for making schools more diverse.

Moving forward, I believe there are several key questions that public officials in New York City should consider:

  1. Successful districts set concrete goals for school integration. How should the citywide diversity goals outlined in the “Equity and Excellence for All” report be modified given evidence in a recent report by the Center for New York City Affairs suggesting the goals could be met without taking any action?
  2. New York City has a number of successful diverse schools in its pilot program. How broadly could this program fruitfully be extended?
  3. New York City District 1 recently moved toward a “controlled choice” plan to promote diversity. In which other community districts would such a plan be feasible at the elementary and middle levels?
  4. At the high-school level, where choice is city-wide, could oversubscribed schools use a weighted lottery to promote socioeconomic (and thereby racial) diversity?
  5. What can be done to diversify the selective high schools in particular? I worked with Chicago Public Schools on a socioeconomic integration program for selective enrollment schools that provides admissions based in part based on the socioeconomic status of the neighborhoods in which applicants reside. The Chicago selective schools are far more racially and ethnically diverse than are New York City’s selective schools. Could a version of the Chicago plan be implemented in New York?
  6. Some charter schools, such as Community Roots and Brooklyn Prospect, are diverse by design. How can charters be provided incentives to promote diversity rather than segregation?
  7. Former New York State Education Commissioner John King created a pilot program to use socioeconomic diversity as a turnaround strategy for struggling schools. Should those programs be expanded in New York City?
  8. My colleague Halley Potter has written about the possibilities of better diversifying pre-K programs. What are the most promising steps that can be taken in that important arena?
  9. Should the New York City Department of Education create a School Integration Liaison or Chief Diversity Officer who is specifically (and solely) tasked with promoting school diversity system-wide?
  10. Should schools be rewarded in accountability systems for improving diversity?

Integrating school buildings is only the first step. My Century Foundation colleague Kimberly Quick will testify about the ways in which New York City public schools can learn from other districts about what policies could be adopted, once a school is desegregated, to ensure that children of all backgrounds are provided genuine equal opportunity.

New York City must move beyond segregation—and beyond a tale of two unequal cities—to become a place that provides opportunity to every one of its children.

Cover Photo: New York City Department of Education Facebook.