Thoughts on Racial and Economic Integration in Schools and Classrooms

Thoughts on Racial and Economic Integration in Schools and Classrooms


From the Marshall Memo #437

In this Education Gadfly article, Michael Petrilli knits together several important demographic and pedagogical themes that have been in the news recently:

• For the first time, reported The New York Times last week, nonwhites account for more than half of U.S. births. Given our schools’ less-than-stellar record educating children of color, wonders Petrilli, what does this augur for the future? 

• America has been unsuccessful at decreasing racial isolation in schools. According to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, the average black and Latino student attends a school that is 75% nonwhite, and 80% of white students (who make up half the school-age population) attend schools that are majority white.

• A long New York Times article on Sunday, May 13, described how students in a Brooklyn charter school feel about going to school with no white classmates. “It’s a bit weird,” said one student. “All my friends are predominantly black, and all the teachers are predominantly white. I think white kids go to different schools. I don’t know. I haven’t seen many white people in a big space before.” 

• Researchers continue to find that attending racially and economically integrated classes produces better life outcomes for poor and minority children. 

• The rapid gentrification of many U.S. cities is making school integration more feasible.

• It’s also possible that charter schools will use recruitment to produce more voluntary integration across race and class lines.

• Truly diverse schools have daunting instructional challenges if they group students heterogeneously in every classroom, says Petrilli: “[C]lasses that are racially and socio-economically diverse are likely to have especially large achievement gaps between their high and low performers – creating a nearly impossible instructional task for mere mortals.” 

• The temptation is for schools to group students in separate classrooms by achievement – but this runs the risk of re-segregating students by race and class – “And what’s the point of an integrated school with segregated classrooms?” asks Petrilli. 

• Differentiated instruction is supposed to make it possible to teach students with a range of achievement levels in the same classroom. But if the gaps are too large, that’s difficult. The most difficult challenge is a bimodal distribution of achievement – very high and very low-performing students with few in the middle.

• Petrilli suggests that the solution might be grouping students for reading and math and teaching them in heterogeneous groups for science, social studies, art, music, and physical education. 

“The Dilemma of Academic Diversity” by Michael Petrilli in The Education Gadfly, May 17, 2012 (Vol. 12, #10), http://bit.ly/Kx9exP 


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