A Good School Is an Integrated School
How a segregated education harms all students — and our democracy.
Posted Jun 10, 2018
What makes a school a “good school”? What are the hallmarks of a “quality education”? Grade point averages and standardized test scores? Class sizes? AP or arts offerings? Graduation and college placement rates? When we think about “high standards” in K-12 education, we usually aren’t thinking about students’ capacity to understand, trust, and work with those of different races, income levels, home languages, and abilities. And yet there may be no standard more important for the one public institution entrusted with empowering young people for their moral, professional, and civic lives in a diverse democracy.
The mayor of New York City made national headlines this week by proposing changes to the process of admission to the city’s so-called specialized high schools, including the prestigious Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science. Bill de Blasio’s plan would set aside 20 percent of the seats for students from high-poverty schools — disproportionately black and Latino — who narrowly missed the cut-off scores on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, currently the sole criterion for admissions. In the longer term, the SHSAT would be eliminated in favor of placement by middle school class rank and state standardized test score.
De Blasio has framed his initiative as a response to “voices talking about the lack of diversity in some of our schools” and “demands for fairness.” Black and Latino students constitute 67 percent of the overall student population but make up less than 10 percent of the population of the specialized high schools. As a stepfather to two young people attending these very schools, this issue is personal for me.
While his talk has been welcomed by many advocates for equity in education, including the new Chancellor Richard Carranza, it concerns only an “elite” eight in a system of more than 1,800 schools responsible for 1.1 million young people, a system that is among the most racially and socioeconomically segregated in the country.
Meanwhile, an alliance of students, educators, activists, and advocacy organizations, the Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation (ASID), has just released what the city has so far failed to imagine: a detailed, comprehensive policy platform for the desegregation and integration of all New York City schools by 2022. ASID’s model of “real integration,” devised by the youth-led organization IntegrateNYC, goes beyond admissions policies to conceive of integration as defined by “5 Rs”: equitable resource allocation, enrollment that reflects the diversity of the community, restorative justice and non-discriminatory discipline policies, demographically representative faculty and leaders, and relationships across group identities in the classroom and curriculum. A number of school- and district-based pilot projects and grassroots efforts are already well underway.
New York City is no anomaly. Nationally, the period of court-ordered progress in desegregation resulting from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was followed by a “long retreat” driven by white flight and overwhelmingly white opposition. Today, American public school students as a whole are more racially isolated than at any point since 1968. Contrary to the self-conceit of many white liberals in Northern urban centers, segregation is worse in such places than in the Southern states, as the UCLA Civil Rights Project has documented.
As with the last major effort to desegregate New York City public schools, in which high school students were also at the forefront — we can expect this campaign to be resisted most fiercely by those families who believe they have the most to lose. In a 2017 interview with the Atlantic, the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones acknowledged that this will be a “much harder argument”:
I think this is where you struggle trying to convince white people they should do this. There’s a clear imbalance for black kids. It’s literally, will you receive a quality education or not? That is what integration means for black kids. Will you be able to transcend poverty? Will you be a full citizen in the country of your birth?
By contrast, “white families understand that they’re fighting to get into white schools for a reason. It is a benefit. They’re going to get the best teachers. They’re going to get the best instruction. They’re going to get the best curriculum.” The question Hannah-Jones raises is whether the evidence that integration is “good for white folks” will be persuasive to those folks.
The evidence is abundant that racially and socioeconomically integrated and destratified learning environments are good for all students, and not just because they reduce the achievement gap. (I am ignoring here the complex debate over those charter and private schools in which students of color prosper academically despite--or, as some advocates would argue, in virtue of--their racial homogeneity.) Commemorating the 64th anniversary of Brown, in May the National Council on School Diversity published a research brief surveying this evidence, which clearly demonstrates that people educated in integrated environments are much more likely to experience sustained "intergroup contact" and the formation or even observation of intergroup friendships. These experiences have a number of long-term effects on their personal, professional, and civic attitudes and behaviors: an increased capacity for empathy and caring for others across racial lines; a reduction in racial anxieties and prejudice; an enhanced “ability to work well with diverse others . . . facilitate creative approaches to problem-solving, and to contribute to positive work environments through reducing incidents of discrimination”; and finally a “greater interest and participation in protests for racial equality and justice.”
Put another way, schools that systematically isolate and alienate Americans of different backgrounds from one another are failing their constituents by making it harder for them to empathize, dialogue, collaborate, and advocate with their neighbors, leaving them less professionally competent, less civically empowered, and less morally decent. No school that does that is a good school.
In conversation with white and Asian students from Bronx Science about admissions to the specialized high schools, I’ve heard concerns about the "lowering of standards.” But even if this concern over rigor were legitimate, it would leave unquestioned the assumption that individual academic performance is the decisive measure of educational quality.
From the perspective of the city, the state, and the federal government, the primary purpose of public education is not merely to promote the personal interests of individuals, to maximize their chances of admission to the college or university of their choice, or even to transform them into the next generation of workers and taxpayers for the benefit of the national economy. The primary purpose of public education is to produce good citizens.
The deep inequality of U.S. schools is a morally odious injustice — the shame of the nation so devastatingly chronicled by the educator and author Jonathan Kozol — and a violation of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law. Yet it also directly undermines the central mission of public schools: to engage young people in the practice of democracy.