At a time when American society is being torn along racial, ethnic, economic, and religious lines, school leaders in a small but growing number of districts are quietly taking steps to make things better. Largely under the radar, school boards and superintendents are making deliberate efforts to bring students of different backgrounds together in order to improve learning for all. According to The Century Foundation’s latest inventory, one hundred school districts and charter schools across the country—educating over 4 million students—have decided that separate schooling for rich and poor, and for students of different races, is fundamentally at odds with the American Dream and the national ideal of e pluribus unum.1
One hundred school districts and charter schools
pursuing socio-economic integration
For two decades, The Century Foundation (TCF) has been researching and reporting on socioeconomic school integration programs that promote economic and racial diversity as a way of fostering social mobility and social cohesion. The case for pursuing these policies is powerful: low-income students in mixed-income schools are as much as two years ahead2 of low-income students in high-poverty schools; and diversity benefits middle-class students as emerging research3 has shown that being in diverse learning environments can make students smarter. We are, to coin a phrase, stronger together.
But how exactly does a school district go about creating socioeconomically and racially integrated schools? The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle4 struck down racial integration plans in Seattle and Louisville but allowed the use of socioeconomic factors (and the use of race at the geographic rather than individual student level). In 2007, TCF released a profile of twelve districts that detailed some early efforts at socioeconomic school integration.5 Since then, the number of districts pursuing socioeconomic diversity has more than doubled, as has the sophistication of those plans. So TCF has commissioned a new set of nine district case studies written by Century Foundation fellow Halley Potter, policy associate Kimberly Quick, and three outside authors: Carole Learned-Miller, Suchi Saxena, and Kim Bridges.6
The authors examine policies in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Champaign, Illinois; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Eden Prairie, Minnesota; Hartford, Connecticut; Jefferson County (Louisville), Kentucky; New York, New York; and Stamford, Connecticut. The list includes districts located in red and blue states; those found in northern, southern, and midwestern regions; plans that have been around for decades and those that are brand new; and sites that range from large urban districts with low-income populations in excess of 80 percent to smaller, wealthier suburban districts just beginning to experience growing diversity.
Despite their considerable variety, some common themes and lessons emerge from the reports on these districts.
Stories of School IntegrationView the profiles of school districts and charter schools pursuing socio-economic integration.
How My Family’s Immigration Story Connects to Integration
New York City Public Schools: Small Steps in the Biggest District
Chicago Public Schools: Ensuring Diversity in Selective Enrollment and Magnet Schools
Hartford Public Schools: Striving for Equity through Interdistrict Programs
Stamford Public Schools: From Desegregated Schools to Integrated Classrooms
Dallas Independent School District: Integration as Innovation
Jefferson County Public Schools: From Legal Enforcement to Ongoing Commitment
Eden Prairie Public Schools: Adapting to Demographic Change in the Suburbs
Champaign Schools: Fighting the Opportunity Gap
Cambridge Public Schools: Pioneers of Equitable Choice
1. When socioeconomic diversity policies are well implemented, they appear to produce strong academic outcomes for students and better prepare them for living in a diverse society.
Almost all of the districts studied that have had socioeconomic integration plans in place long enough to have an effect are seeing positive student outcomes. For example, in Cambridge, which has had a socioeconomic integration plan in place since 2001, students outperform those in demographically similar districts in Massachusetts on state English, math, and science exams. Moreover, 90.5 percent of black students, 88.7 percent of Hispanic students, and 89.5 percent of low-income students in Cambridge graduated high school in the 2014–15 school year. That compares to a 73 percent black student graduation rate and 82 percent overall graduation rate nationally in the 2013–14 school year, the most recent year for which data are available.
Likewise, in Greater Hartford’s inter-district non-selective magnet schools, the black/white and Hispanic/white achievement gaps in reading were about half as large as the comparable statewide gaps. The achievement differences are smaller not because white students do worse, but because all subgroups of students perform better. Of course, high performance might be explained by the fact that only the most motivated students apply to magnets, but careful research comparing magnet school lottery winners and losers has found positive results for student achievement.
In Stamford, too, low-income students perform above the state average and gaps in graduation rates between disadvantaged and advantaged students have fallen substantially. In Jefferson County, the proportion of students deemed College and Career Ready nearly doubled between 2011 and 2015. And 95 percent of Jefferson County high school juniors reported feeling either “very prepared” or “somewhat prepared” to “work and live in diverse settings.”
The major exception to the rule of high performance is Champaign, where achievement gaps remain large, perhaps because of tracking within schools, an issue we discuss below.
2. While school integration is often politically challenging, key steps—such as the use of choice and incentives—can smooth the path to community support.
Most of the districts profiled use public school choice and incentives (such as magnet schools), rather than compulsory busing, to achieve integration. Many use a system called “controlled choice,” in which families choose from a variety of special options and districts honor choice with an eye to socioeconomic integration.
Many districts are able to marry choice and integration quite successfully. In Champaign, close to 90 percent of kindergartners receive their first choice school. In Jefferson County (Louisville), the first choice placement rate is also 90 percent. The reliance on choice rather than compulsory busing in Louisville may be one explanation for the dramatic uptick in community support over the years. In the 1970s, 98 percent of suburbanites opposed the busing plan, but by 2011, 89 percent said the school district’s guidelines should “ensure that students learn with students from different races and economic backgrounds,” as Kimberly Quick and Rebecca Damante explain in a separate Century Foundation report on Louisville.7
Special magnet offerings can be critical to attracting a broad cross section of students. For example, Hartford is able to draw suburban students into one of the poorest cities in the country using a system of forty-five magnet schools. The proportion of Hartford students attending integrated schools has increased from 11 percent a decade ago to a projected 46 percent in 2016.
Some districts using magnets such as Cambridge, are seeing rising public school enrollment—a reversal of the white and middle class “flight” phenomenon some have associated with integration efforts. Dallas’s Solar Preparatory School has attracted a diverse group of students to a socioeconomically integrated magnet program, including many pupils who had been using private or charter schools.
In order to ensure that choice plans are equitable, family information centers have been established to ensure that all parents make informed choices. And successful districts also provide free transportation. As Dallas’s Office of Transportation and Innovation Chief Mike Koprowki notes, “Choice without transportation really isn’t choice for many families.”
Instead of using magnet schools and public school choice, some districts, such as Eden Prairie Minnesota, redrew school boundary lines to create greater integration. This led to a political backlash and the resignation of the superintendent there. But even here, students became used to integrated schools and the newly drawn boundary lines remain in effect. An Eden Prairie principal noted, “The nice part is to be able to look back on it and say, ‘See, when the dust settles, everybody is OK.’”
Money can be another important incentive for voluntary integration. In 2015, New York State used federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds to encourage socioeconomic integration as a school turnaround strategy. Several New York City community school districts are working to design controlled choice admissions policies, efforts which might not have continued in the absence of funding.
3. Setting clear system-wide goals for integration increases the likelihood of achieving success.
Not surprisingly, setting clear goals to integrate all schools in a district leads to much broader integration than programs focused on a small subset of schools. Cambridge, Champaign, Jefferson County, and Stamford all have system-wide goals that all schools should be within a range of the district-wide average for disadvantaged student populations and all have been quite successful in achieving integration. In Stamford, for example, eighteen or twenty schools fall within plus or minus 10 percentage points of the district average for socioeconomic diversity. “Having that hard and fast rule was really powerful,” says former Stamford superintendent Joshua Starr.
Some higher-poverty districts, such as Dallas and Chicago, have, by contrast, addressed socioeconomic integration within only a small subset of schools, leaving many students in segregated environments. High-poverty districts might appear to have no choice in the matter, but, as Lesson 4 below suggests, they do have other options.
4. Policies that break down artificial walls between city and suburb can have greater impact than those limited to existing district lines.
Unlike Chicago and Dallas, two of the jurisdictions profiled—Hartford and Louisville—have broken through urban/suburban walls. Louisville did so by consolidating with suburban Jefferson County schools into a single school system; and Hartford did so through an extensive two-way urban/suburban transfer program.
Earlier Century Foundation research explored the benefits of eight inter-district programs in jurisdictions ranging from metropolitan St. Louis to Boston and Rochester to Minneapolis.8 The advantages of having a consolidated district is also a key lesson from a forthcoming Century Foundation report from Paul Tractenberg and colleagues on Morris School District in New Jersey. Either approach offers up significant new opportunities for moving beyond separate and unequal schooling.
5. Socioeconomic diversity policies can often lead to racial diversity.
When the Supreme Court struck down Seattle and Louisville’s racial integration plans in 2007, many feared that racial school diversity would no longer be unattainable. In practice, however, socioeconomic integration programs in many communities have led to vibrant levels of racial diversity. Under Cambridge’s socioeconomic integration plan, for example, 84 percent of Cambridge students attended racially balanced schools in the 2011–12 school year. Likewise, in Chicago, when the district’s ten selective enrollment schools shifted from race to socioeconomic status as a criterion in admission, the schools continued to be racially diverse. In 2013–14, the selective enrollment population was 22 percent white, nearly 30 percent Hispanic, 35 percent African-American and 9 percent Asian. By comparison, in New York City’s selective schools, which do not use socioeconomic status as a factor, student populations in 2013–14 were 5 percent black and 7 percent Latino in a city whose school population overall was 70 percent black and Latino.9 A Minneapolis socioeconomic integration program that involves suburban Eden Prairie uses income as a screen, but 95 percent of participants are of color. And Dallas’s socioeconomically integrated pilot program has a student population that is 45 percent Hispanic, 25 percent black, 25 percent white, and 5 percent Asian.
6. Districts have grown more sophisticated in defining disadvantage.
When socioeconomic integration programs first began, most districts adopted eligibility for free and reduced price lunch (185 percent of the poverty line) as an indicator of economic disadvantage because the data are readily available. But that the measure is not ideal. It only looks at family income, not parental education, so the children of temporarily low-income graduate students are counted as disadvantaged. The measure also splits the world into two categories—those receiving subsidized lunch and those not—which fails to capture the full spectrum of educational disadvantage and advantage running from poor to working class to middle class, and upper class. Finally, subsidized meals data has become less reliable as a measure of disadvantage as more districts take advantage of the ability to grant all students in higher poverty schools free lunch, whether or not individual students meet income guidelines.
In response to these realities, districts have created a number of new, more sophisticated measures of disadvantage. Chicago examines several factors by student Census tract: median family income; adult educational attainment; percent of single-family households; home-ownership percentage; percentage of the population that is non-English speaking; and a school performance variable. These data are combined to create a composite figure for socioeconomic status and then Census tracts are divided into four economic tiers. (Disclosure: I helped Chicago develop this system.) Dallas now uses a version of the Chicago system. Jefferson County, meanwhile, looks at three Census tract measures (income, education, and race), and divides geographic areas into three tiers.
7. Districts are more likely to be successful when they ensure integration not only in school buildings but also in school classrooms.
A final lesson from the case studies is that integrating school buildings is only a first step; to promote equity, schools should also seek to reduce economic and racial segregation at the classroom level. Two districts illustrate this point nicely.
On the one hand, Champaign has done a very good job at integrating schools, but there is still a fair amount of stratification within schools. Perhaps as a result, Champaign still struggles with large racial achievement gaps. Stamford, by contrast, has been successful not only in creating socioeconomically integrated schools but also pushing for diversity within classrooms. Superintendent Josh Starr said “the major issue facing the district was the tracking of students.” After laying the groundwork to create political support, Starr gave a speech on the opening day in 2009, saying “we’re going to eliminate tracking this year,” and “people stood up and applauded.” Stamford eliminated ability grouping in the elementary schools and substantially reduced tracking in the middle and high school grades. Between 2010 and 2014, the proportion of black students taking AP classes nearly tripled and the proportion of Hispanics doing so doubled.
Socioeconomic integration is important but complicated work. As the number of districts taking on such integration efforts continues to grow, it is critical that best practices be shared and worst practices avoided.
In the past, districts have mostly come to this work on their own and have not had the opportunity to learn from one another. That is beginning to change. Under U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr., the federal government is seeking to support voluntary efforts to promote integration and is, in coalition with The Century Foundation and the National Coalition for School Diversity, convening districts to engage in peer to peer learning. These case studies below are an important aid in that effort—and to support the larger goal of reviving Brown v. Board of Education for a new century.
- Halley Potter, Kimberly Quick, and Elizabeth Davies, “A New Wave of School Integration,” The Century Foundation, February 9, 2016, https://tcf.org/content/report/a-new-wave-of-school-integration/.
- Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter, “Can Racial and Socioeconomic Integration Promote Better Outcomes for Students?” The Century Foundation and Poverty & Race Research Action Council, May 2012, Figure 2, p. 11 https://tcf.org/assets/downloads/Diverse_Charter_Schools.pdf.
- Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo, “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students,” The Century Foundation, February 9, 2016, https://tcf.org/content/report/how-racially-diverse-schools-and-classrooms-can-benefit-all-students/.
- 551 U.S. 701 (2007).
- Richard D. Kahlenberg, “Rescuing Brown v. Board of Education,” The Century Foundation, June 27, 2007, https://tcf.org/content/commentary/rescuing-brown-v-board-of-education/.
- From this point thereafter, unless otherwise stated, all data referenced in this paper is derived from the accompanying District Case Study profiles.
- Kimberly Quick and Rebecca Damante, “Louisville, Kentucky: A Reflection on School Integration,” The Century Foundation, September 15, 2016, https://tcf.org/content/report/louisville-kentucky-reflection-school-integration/.
- Richard D. Kahlenberg, Improving on No Child Left Behind: Getting Education Reform Back on Track (New York: Century Foundation Press, 2008).
- Richard D. Kahlenberg, “Elite, Separate, Unequal: New York City’s Top Public Schools Need Diversity,” New York Times, June 22, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/23/opinion/new-york-citys-top-public-schools-need-diversity.html.