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May 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 8

The Diversity Dilemma

How can diverse schools meet the academic needs of both poor and affluent students—and, at the same time, respond to conflicting parent preferences regarding schooling?

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We're in the midst of "the Great Inversion," writes Alan Ehrenhalt (2012), a journalist and analyst at the Pew Center on the States. Put simply, in the United States, affluent people are moving back to the cities as lower-income people move out to the suburbs. The social ramifications of this flip-flop are far-reaching. One positive outcome is the potential for greater school integration along race and class lines as both cities and suburbs become more diverse.
There's little doubt that U.S. schools could stand to be better integrated. Eighty-seven percent of white students attend majority-white schools, even though such youngsters make up just over half of the public school population. Only 14 percent of white students attend "multicultural" schools (in which three racial groups each make up at least 10 percent of the pupil population). Meanwhile, about 40 percent of black and Hispanic students attend schools that are intensely segregated, serving few white students. This percentage has risen from about one-third in the late 1980s (Orfield, 2009).
There's also little doubt that segregation is, in general, harmful for students, especially poor and minority students. "Peer effects" studies by scholars such as Eric Hanushek (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2009) and Caroline Hoxby (2000) have shown that black pupils learn less in segregated classrooms than in diverse ones. Analyses by the Century Foundation's Richard Kahlenberg (2001) have demonstrated that low-income students do worse in college and the job market when they attend segregated schools, probably because they haven't had a chance to learn the norms of middle-class America.
If the Great Inversion continues—and greater neighborhood diversity yields greater school diversity—educators will have an excellent opportunity to achieve the integration goals that have eluded us since Brown v. Board of Education. But it won't be easy.

The Conundrum

Schools that serve a diverse pupil population—especially an economically diverse population—face two challenges. The first concerns academic diversity: Poor students tend to come to school significantly behind their more affluent peers. Meeting the needs of both groups of students is hard, even before getting to the issues of individual differences. The second challenge concerns cultural diversity: Parenting styles among poor and affluent families tend to differ greatly, leading to different expectations (and preferences) regarding schooling.

The Academic Diversity Challenge

Schools that serve both poor and affluent students tend to have an enormous range in student achievement levels. On average, middle-class children are two to three grade levels ahead of their low-income peers at any given time, which makes it that much harder for teachers to instruct all students of the same age together.
There are no perfect solutions to this problem. One option is to group students by achievement, with the high achievers in one classroom and the lower achievers in another. But in socio-economically diverse schools, that practice tends to result in classrooms segregated by class, and often race—and who wants to create integrated schools with segregated classrooms?
The other option is to mix all the students together and ask teachers to "differentiate instruction." The notion behind differentiated instruction is that a teacher instructs a diverse group of kids and manages to reach each student at precisely the appropriate level.
If you think that sounds hard, you're not alone. I asked Holly Hertberg-Davis, one of the leading experts on differentiated instruction, if the theory was too good to be true. In a large study in which she was involved, teachers were provided with extensive training and ongoing coaching in differentiated instruction. Three years later, the researchers wanted to know whether the program had had an effect on student learning. "We couldn't answer the question," Hertberg-Davis told me, "because no one was actually differentiating."
Teachers admit to being flummoxed. In a 2008 national survey (Farkas, Duffett, & Loveless, 2008), more than 80 percent of teachers said that differentiated instruction was "very" or "somewhat" difficult to implement. In a 2010 survey of education school professors, the same proportion found it difficult to implement the approach (Farkas & Duffett, 2010).
Probably the best option is to find a compromise: to group students by achievement for part of the day (say, for reading and math), then regroup them heterogeneously for the rest of the day (say, for social studies, science, art, music, and physical education). Reading and math instruction can be more narrowly targeted to students' current attainment levels, whereas in their other classes, students can benefit from the social and academic advantages of diversity. Blended learning will likely offer additional solutions, as students spend part of their day learning online, with lessons customized to their achievement levels and learning styles.

The Cultural Diversity Challenge

The second major challenge that diverse schools face arises from their mix of cultures and the differing student needs and parental preferences that result. To better understand these needs and preferences, Harvard researcher Naomi Calvo (2007) immersed herself in Seattle, Washington's "controlled choice" program, which offered parents public school options from across the city in an attempt to better integrate Seattle's deeply segregated schools. Calvo later talked to parents about their decision-making processes. This vignette is particularly telling:
One morning I interviewed Sylvie, a vivacious middle-class white mother whose daughter attended a popular alternative school. Sylvie was thrilled with the school—it was a perfect fit for her shy daughter, a nurturing close-knit community with project-based learning and a "child-centric" curriculum. The principal knew every student, and kids called teachers by their first names. The one downside, Sylvie said, was that the school was not as diverse as she would like. For some reason it had trouble attracting students of color, particularly black students.Later that afternoon I interviewed Bernice, a middle-class black mom who had chosen a large traditional school for her "social butterfly" daughter. Although the school had low test scores and a mediocre reputation, Bernice had been impressed when she visited. She thought the principal was pushing kids to excel, and she liked the "college-bound" program that encouraged students to start thinking about college early. She was also attracted by the curriculum, which focused on basic skills. As Bernice described the different schools she considered and the various factors she weighed in choosing among them, I noticed that she did not mention Sylvie's alternative school as an option. Had she, I asked, considered sending her daughter there? "Oh no," Bernice replied. "That school, it doesn't have any discipline or structure whatsoever. Do you know," she went on in a horrified voice, "they even let the kids call teachers by their first names!" (Calvo, 2007, p. 32)
We mustn't overgeneralize from a single story about two moms. Not all affluent white parents want progressive, warm-and-fuzzy schools, and not all black parents want highly structured, traditional ones. But there is some validity to this stereotype, and it's hardly a secret: For decades, magnet school administrators have placed Montessori schools in black neighborhoods as a way to draw white families and "back-to-basics" schools in white neighborhoods as a way to draw black families. The approach tends to work.
In the 1990s, Petronio (1996) studied the public school choice program of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She found that parents tended to be either traditionalists, who wanted their kids to learn basic skills and get the "right answers," or alternative-school aficionados, who sought environments that "stimulated curiosity and encouraged exploration." The alternative school parents were usually middle-class professionals, whereas the traditionalists came from poorer backgrounds.
The conundrum for diverse schools, then, is how to meet the varied preferences and demands of differing parent groups and family backgrounds. But, in truth, the issue goes deeper because there's also reason to believe that what poor and affluent kids need from school is not quite the same thing.

Progressive Education: Good for White Folks Only?

In 1986, Lisa Delpit published "Skills and Other Dilemmas of a Progressive Black Educator," an article that soon became one of the most requested in the Harvard Educational Review's history. Delpit was born in Louisiana, where, as she put it, her teachers "in the pre-integration, poor black Catholic school that I attended corrected every other word I uttered in their effort to coerce my black English into sometimes hypercorrect Standard English forms acceptable to black nuns in Catholic schools" (Delpit, 1995, p. 11).
But in her own teacher training program and then at Harvard, she learned from her professors that this "traditional" approach to education was shortsighted, maybe even racist, that "people learn to write not by being taught 'skills' and grammar but by 'writing in meaningful contexts'" (Delpit, 1995, p. 12). Delpit took these theories and tried to implement them in an integrated school in Philadelphia.
Whereas the older black teachers at the school focused on traditional skills, such as handwriting, and arranged their students' desks in parallel rows, Delpit embraced all the progressive methods: open classrooms, learning stations, carpeted sitting areas instead of desks, math games, even weaving to teach fine motor skills. She wrote,
My white students zoomed ahead. They worked hard at the learning stations. They did amazing things with books and writing. My black students played the games, they learned how to weave, and they threw the books around the learning stations. They practiced karate moves on the new carpets. Some of them even learned how to read, but none of them as quickly as my white students. I was doing the same thing for all my kids—what was the problem? (1995, p. 13)
Although she didn't totally reject the tenets of progressive education, Delpit eventually adopted more traditional methods, which helped her black students improve their reading and writing skills. Her article sparked an enormous response from other black teachers, who believed that the fashionable progressive methods were good for "white folks" but not for kids of color (at least, not for poor kids of color). And those teachers might have been right.
Enter E. D. Hirsch, who, in the mid-1980s, was a relatively low-profile English professor at the University of Virginia. In 1987, he published a book that marked a turning point in his career—and arguably in American education. In Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, Hirsch argued that all young people needed to possess "mainstream cultural knowledge" to successfully navigate society's institutions and opportunities. The research, he said, was clear: People who scored high on tests of cultural literacy did better educationally and economically. If the United States was serious about enabling social mobility, Hirsch argued, it had to ensure that all of its children had access to knowledge, which was the key to power.
Middle-class kids are more likely than poor children to bring such knowledge to school. Affluent kids have a huge head start because of their relatively large vocabularies, exposure to language through their parents' and peers' conversations, and enrichment activities (like trips to the zoo) that they've enjoyed practically since the womb.
Many poor children, on the other hand, will build relevant background knowledge only if they're exposed to it in school. And if they don't build this knowledge in the early grades, they'll fall even further behind as they get older.

Poor Kids, Promising Results

So, if progressive education—at least the kind that downplays the teaching of knowledge and skills—is not the best approach for the neediest kids, what is? What kinds of curriculum, pedagogy, and culture are seen in schools that teach disadvantaged children effectively?
One of the most compelling investigations of high-performing, inner-city schools is David Whitman's Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism (2008). Whitman looked at six highly successful secondary schools—four charter schools, one Catholic school, and one regular public school. All are achieving phenomenal results as measured by test scores, graduation rates, and success in college; and all serve predominantly poor and minority students.
These schools are not cookie-cutter copies of one another; each has its own distinctive flavor. But, as Whitman (2008) reports, they share some key commonalities: "They … have rigorous academic standards, test students frequently, and carefully monitor students' academic performance to assess where students need help" (p. 3).
None of this is surprising. Such traits have been identified by researchers who have studied effective schools for more than three decades. And these insights parallel what scientists have learned from 40 years of study about how students best learn to read, much of it funded by the National Institutes of Health (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Poor kids, in particular, need instruction that is direct, highly structured, and buttressed by regular assessment to determine whether the learning is sticking.
Whitman pointed out other staples of successful high-poverty schools: uniforms or a dress code, an extended school day, and summer school. But his unique contribution was to identify a secret ingredient in the schools' success that is often overlooked: They are all benignly paternalistic:
Each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think but how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. … The schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Students are required to talk a certain way, sit a certain way, and dress a certain way. (Whitman, 2008, p. 3)
These are not practices generally found in schools serving affluent students. Naomi Calvo put it to me bluntly: "The types of reforms that are considered best practice for disadvantaged kids are exactly what middle-class parents hate. I don't know how you are going to have a meeting of the minds on that." When asked about the attributes they want their children to develop in school, affluent parents tend to name creativity and thinking outside the box. Poor parents, by contrast, "don't use language like that," Calvo said. They speak in more concrete terms and are focused on making sure their kids can read, do math, and get ready for college.

Solving the Dilemma

Is there a solution to this culture clash? Finding compromise is tough. A school can't be both paternalistic and loosey-goosey, both structured and open-ended. Students either call their teachers by their first names, or they don't. Either they wear uniforms, or they don't.
Most likely, diverse schools will need to eschew progressive pedagogy in favor of a traditional curriculum, augmented by something special to attract parents of all classes and races. Language immersion programs appear to be especially popular at such schools, as are math and science initiatives.
Take, for example, the Denver School of Science and Technology in Colorado, a charter high school located in a trendy, mixed-income neighborhood. Almost 70 percent of its students are black or Hispanic, and 40 percent of its 2009 graduating class was first-generation college-bound. It's the highest-performing school in Denver, hands down. Its students, many of whom enter the school at least one grade level behind, are making huge gains on standardized tests. Perhaps most impressive, 100 percent of the school's first senior class was accepted into four-year colleges, including Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, and Wesleyan University.
Those impressive results mean that the school is now luring affluent families away from Denver's most selective private schools. "We've made a whole group of upper-middle-class parents in town reconsider public education," Bill Kurtz, the school's founder, told me. But that doesn't mean the school is for everyone. "There's a segment of the population who would want progressive, project-based learning who would not come here."
That type of parent would be taken aback by the fact that the kids wear uniforms and walk silently in the hallways. There's a lot of structure and discipline there. But many of those who buy into rigorous standards and a college-prep curriculum, whatever their race or economic class, will be thrilled. Because of the school's success, Kurtz said, "People are willing to sacrifice touchy-feely stuff."
The Great Inversion offers the best opportunity in a generation to create racially and economically diverse public schools. Seizing this opportunity will take leadership, a clear sense of the challenges, and thoughtful solutions. Let's get started.

Calvo, N. (2007). How parents choose schools: A mixed-methods study of public school choice in Seattle. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Delpit, L. (1995). Skills and other dilemmas of a progressive black educator. In Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom (pp. 11–20). New York: New Press.

Ehrenhalt, A. (2012). The great inversion and the future of the American city. New York: Knopf.

Farkas, S., & Duffett, A. (2010). Cracks in the ivory tower? The views of education professors circa 2010. Washington, DC: FDR Group and Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Farkas, S., Duffett, A., & Loveless, T. (2008). High-achieving students in the era of No Child Left Behind. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Hanushek, E. A., Kain, J. F., & Rivkin, S. G. (2009). New evidence about "Brown v. Board of Education": The complex effects of school racial composition on achievement. Journal of Labor Economics, 27(3), 349–383.

Hirsch, E. D. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Hoxby, C. (2000). Peer effects in the classroom: Learning from gender and race variation. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Kahlenberg, R. D. (2001). All together now: Creating middle-class schools through public school choice. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Orfield, G. (2009). Reviving the goal of an integrated society: A 21st century challenge. Los Angeles: UCLA Civil Rights Project.

Petronio, M. A. (1996). The choices parents make. Educational Leadership, 54(2), 33–36.

Whitman, D. (2008). Sweating the small stuff: Inner-city schools and the new paternalism. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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