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"The Social Science Evidence on the Effects of Diversity in K-12 Schools,"

by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson September/October 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

Racial segregation of students in public schools is increasing. Ironically, schools are resegregating just as the responsibility to provide high-quality, equitable education to all children is becoming more complicated because of the ongoing demographic transformation of our society. Findings from recent social science research are consistent and persuasive: Integrated schools are an important component of high quality, equitable education. In the Supreme Court’s recent Louisville and Seattle cases, the four-Justice plurality opinion dismissed the social science evidence on the benefits of integration as insufficiently compelling to support race-conscious school integration practices. A majority of five Justices, drawing upon the corpus of social science research that shows school racial composition influences outcomes, decided that race-conscious school integration and reduction of racial isolation are important goals (while a different 5-4 majority rejected two voluntary school plans that achieved these goals by giving preference to individual students on the basis of their race).

PRRAC’s Small Grants program supported part of my work in compiling hundreds of scholarly articles on the effects of school and classroom composition on educational outcomes and translating the findings from this compilation for public access and dissemination. This work allowed me to contribute to the amicus brief of 553 social scientists submitted by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, as well as the amicus briefs filed by the American Educational Research Association, the Swann Fellowship and the NAACP.

The Larger Research Project

The work supported by PRRAC is part of a larger project I began in late 2005 with support from the American Sociological Association’s Spivack Program in Applied Social Research and Social Policy. The Spivack Project is a survey and synthesis of research about the effects of school and classroom composition on educational outcomes. Currently, this work continues with support from the National Science Foundation’s REESE program.

During the last few decades, the social science evidence on the educational benefits of integrated education for all students has become more definitive. Social science research methods have improved our ability to investigate the complexity of the real world in which students learn. For example, we all know that a “3.8 GPA” from one high school is not necessarily the same as a “3.8 GPA” at another high school. Schools differ in ways that matter for achievement.

These new research tools model the fact that students are nested in schools. They allow us to examine the interrelationships amongst the student, family, classroom and school factors that shape achievement. One of the most valuable of these statistical tools is called multilevel modeling (or hierarchical linear modeling). Multilevel modeling offers a clearer interpretation of the relative effects of school characteristics (including racial composition) and family background (including race/ethnicity and social class) on students’ academic outcomes. The preponderance of findings from this newer social science, behavioral and educational research indicates racial composition matters for educational outcomes in the following ways:
  • Desegregated schools and classrooms have positive effects on achievement. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills of all students are likely to improve in racially diverse classrooms.
  • Positive effects can occur at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
  • Desegregated learning environments can have positive effects on mathematics and language achievement.
  • Students from all racial and social class backgrounds are likley to demonstrate higher achievement in racially balanced schools. To be sure, there are variations in the size of the effects by state, by subject matter, school level and ethnic group.
  • Racial isolation has harmful effects on the achievement of African- American and many Latino students. Research is less clear about harmful effects of racial isolation on Whites and Asian Americans, although there are some studies that indicate racially-isolated White schools may not be optimal for Whites either.
  • The ways that schools and classrooms are organized contribute to the opportunities to learn within them. Compared to racially-isolated minority schools, diverse schools and classrooms are more likely to offer higher quality and greater equity in opportunities to learn in terms of:
    • Teacher quality and material resources.
    • Depth and breadth of curricular coverage, including more AP courses and other forms of enrichment.
    • A positive academic climate in terms of higher expectations from teachers and peers.
    • Stability of teaching staff and student populations.
  • Academic tracking, ability grouping and special education programs (including those for gifted children) often resegregate desegregated schools. Tracking within desegregated schools can dilute the effects of school integration on achievement because African-American and Latino students are more likely to be found in lower tracks than their White and Asian-American peers with comparable prior achievement, family background and other characteristics.
  • A school’s racial composition is related to but not equivalent to its socioeconomic composition. Both the racial and socioeconomic composition of a school affect achievement outcomes.
  • In the long term, diverse schools and classrooms reduce prejudice and fears while they foster interracial friendships and understanding. Integrated schooling inhibits the intergenerational perpetuation of racial hatred, prejudice and fear.
  • Adults, especially members of disadvantaged minority groups, who attended desegregated K-12 schools are more likely to attain higher education, to have higher status jobs, and to live and work in racially diverse settings compared to their counterparts who attended racially isolated minority schools.

The Social Scientists’ Statement

The findings summarized above are presented in great detail in the social science statement signed by 553 scholars whose expertise covers the issues of race, education and life course opportunities. The social science statement concluded:
  • Racially integrated student bodies are essential if K-12 public schools are to prepare children to be global citizens in our increasingly diverse society.
  • Racially integrated schools enhance students’ learning, expand their future opportunities and benefit society at large.
  • Racially integrated schools promote social cohesion and reduce prejudice.
  • School districts that have not been able to implement race-conscious policies have not achieved the racial integration necessary to obtain the short-term and long-term benefits of integrated education.

As part of my work for PRRAC, I developed several PowerPoint presentations on the benefits of school and classroom diversity and the harms of racial isolation (see Resources box). These can be used by local researchers and trainers to help spread the word on the continuing importance of school and classroom diversity. The Power Point presentations include resources for school leaders seeking to implement diversity programs.

The Spivack Archive

When the Spivack Project is completed in 2008, a searchable electronic database—called the Spivack Archive—with detailed summaries of all the social, behavioral and educational research surveyed will be available at the American Sociological Association’s website, www.asanet. org. The Spivack Archive will serve as a resource for people who wish to use social science evidence in efforts to foster diverse, integrated schools.

The Supreme Court has given a green light to school districts to continue to support racial diversity in education. Justice Kennedy’s controlling opinion in the Louisville and Seattle cases means the majority of the Justices accepted the vital principle that overcoming racial isolation in public schools is a compelling interest. Local communities and their school district leaders should respond to the invitation from Justice Kennedy and take the actions necessary to foster diversity in their schools and the classrooms within them.

Roslyn Arlin Mickelson , a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is on the sociology faculty of the Univ. of North Carolina-Charlotte. She holds adjunct appointments in Public Policy, Information Technology and Women’s Studies.

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