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May 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 8

The New Integration

A few groundbreaking school districts are integrating students by socioeconomic status—and narrowing achievement gaps.

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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sets out the lofty goal of making all public school students—no matter their family income or racial background—proficient in reading and math by 2014. But given the fact that schools have struggled in vain to close persistent achievement gaps for decades, many educators are scratching their heads about how on earth to reach this laudable aim.
A small but growing number of school districts—including Wake County, North Carolina; San Francisco, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and La Crosse, Wisconsin—are pursuing a new experiment based on an old-fashioned vision: integrating students by socioeconomic status. In the United States, the notion of economically mixed schools goes back to 19th century educator Horace Mann's idea of the common school, where rich and poor students would come together on an equal footing and learn what it means to be an American. Mann's vision has never been fully realized, and increased economic residential segregation in the 20th and 21st centuries has made it even more difficult to achieve.
Socioeconomic school integration is fraught with considerable political peril. Until recently, many school policymakers have been scared to death to take on the issue. After all, economic mixing challenges the deeply held notion that wealthy and middle-class parents have a right to purchase homes in “good” neighborhoods and send their children to public schools where they will be surrounded by students from other wealthy and middle-class families. Yet reams of research suggest that socioeconomic integration may hold the key to reducing persistent achievement gaps.
One of the leaders in socioeconomic school integration is North Carolina's Wake County Public School System, a dynamic and growing district of 120,000 students that includes the city of Raleigh and its surrounding suburbs. In 2000, the Wake County school board voted to replace a long-standing racial integration plan with a less racially focused goal: that no school should have more than 40 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch or have more than 25 percent of its students performing below grade level. Wake County's plan is receiving considerable national attention because early results suggest that it is raising the achievement of all students and narrowing the gap between groups (Finder, 2005; Robb, 2006; Silberman, 2002).

Why Socioeconomic Integration Works

In shifting from racial integration to socioeconomic integration, Wake County was responding in part to a long line of research indicating that the socioeconomic makeup of a school, rather than its racial makeup, drives student achievement. Researchers have found that the reason black students' achievement rose with racial desegregation in certain communities (such as Charlotte, North Carolina) was not that black students benefited from sitting next to white students, but that low-income students benefited from a middle-class school environment. In contrast, no significant achievement gains occurred in districts like Boston, which integrated low-income white students and low-income black students (Kahlenberg, 2001).
The well-known Coleman report found that next to a student's family, the socioeconomic status of his or her school is the single most important determinant of academic success (Coleman et al., 1966). The report's conclusion that all students do better in middle-class schools has been confirmed again and again in the literature (Kahlenberg, 2001). For example, University of California professor Russell Rumberger and his colleague Gregory J. Palardy (2005) found that a school's socioeconomic status has as much impact on the achievement growth of high school students as the students' individual economic backgrounds. And scores from the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that low-income students attending middle-class schools performed better in math than did middle-class students attending high-poverty schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002).
Why is it advantageous for students to avoid high-poverty schools? Schools with high concentrations of poverty tend to offer a difficult environment for learning. According to a study conducted for the Economic Policy Institute, low-income schools are 24 times less likely than middle-class schools to be consistently high-performing (Harris, in press). Although isolated high-poverty schools with charismatic principals and extraordinarily dedicated teachers have achieved success, the overwhelming majority of high-poverty schools struggle. This occurs in part because individual low-income students are, on average, less likely to come from family environments that support academic achievement. But additional problems arise when low-income students are concentrated in schools apart from their middle-class peers.
In Wake County, educators observed that schools with high concentrations of poverty had high teacher turnover, low parental involvement, and high student mobility (Silberman, 2002). National research has confirmed these problems and has also found that students in high-poverty schools are surrounded by peers who are more likely to misbehave and to disparage academic achievement; they are also taught by teachers who have, on average, lower teacher test scores, less experience, less training, and lower expectations (Kahlenberg, 2001).
As policymakers grapple with NCLB's goal of reducing the achievement gap, they are coming to terms with the reality that no one knows how to make high-poverty schools work on a systemwide basis. Some school districts have concluded that rather than try to achieve the nearly impossible, they should take measures to ensure that all students have a chance to attend solidly middle-class public schools.

How to Achieve Socioeconomic Integration

Wake County decided to implement economic school integration partly by redrawing school district boundaries and partly by making extensive use of magnet schools with special arts and music programs, foreign language options, and the like. Almost all the special-theme magnets, which were established during the district's efforts to promote racial integration, are located in high-poverty areas in Raleigh. In general, 30 percent of the magnet schools' students are assigned from the local neighborhoods and the rest are drawn in from other areas. Although many of the magnet programs are located in tough neighborhoods, several are oversubscribed (C. Massengill, personal communication, Feb. 3, 2006).
Wake County is fortunate to have a school district that encompasses city and suburbs within a single jurisdiction. But about 14 percent of U.S. school districts consist of mostly low-income students. How would economic school integration work in these districts? In such cases, districts can approach the challenge of creating majority—middle-class schools in two ways.
One approach is to draw students back into the public school system from private schools by offering magnet alternatives, as Cambridge, Massachusetts, has done. Cambridge requires that the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in each school must fall within a small range of the districtwide average (43 percent). Under the Cambridge plan, every school is a magnet school. Using a system known as controlled choice, the district allows families to choose from among the district's 12 elementary schools, each offering a distinctive program. After parents rank their preferences, the district assigns students with the aim of achieving economic school integration. The vast majority of students—more than 90 percent—receive one of their first three choices (Fiske, 2002).
When Cambridge first implemented its controlled choice plan in the early 1980s, the district experienced a 32 percent increase in new white students and a 13 percent increase in new minority students. Overall, the share of school-age children in the community attending public schools rose from 88 percent to 95 percent (Wells & Crain, 2005).
A second approach is for majority—low-income districts to form partnerships with majority—middle-class suburban districts, partnerships through which some urban students attend middle-class suburban schools and some suburban students attend magnet schools in the city. Today, between 300,000 and 500,000 students cross school district lines every day to attend public school in another district (Brown, 2004; Henig & Sugarman, 1999).
In St. Louis, Missouri, some 12,000 city students attend suburban schools. A smaller number of St. Louis suburban students attend magnet schools in the city. The program, originally begun as part of a court-supervised desegregation plan, was continued on a voluntary basis beginning in 1999 because of its success in raising the graduation rates and achievement of urban students who were educated in middle-class suburban schools (Freivogel, 2002).
In Hartford, Connecticut, under a program dating back to the 1960s, urban students are given the opportunity to attend middle-class suburban schools; many urban students choose to do so, and a roughly equal number of suburban students choose to attend magnet schools in the city. One magnet with a Montessori program is located near boarded-up buildings but has a long waiting list of white middle-class suburban children (Kahlenberg, 2003). City-to-suburb transfer students in Hartford are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and go on to well-paying jobs (Wells & Crain, 2005).
Interdistrict public school choice programs in St. Louis and Hartford—and similar programs in Boston, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis—are fairly small in scale and do not reach the vast majority of students in these jurisdictions. But by implementing these programs, as well as the more far-reaching programs in Wake County and Cambridge, school policymakers are recognizing that separate schools for rich and poor are inherently unequal, even if the schools are equally funded.
Status Quote

Status Quote - The New Integration

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Abraham Lincoln

Narrowing Achievement Gaps

Emphasizing public school choice rather than compulsory busing has not eliminated all opposition to socioeconomic integration in Cambridge and Wake County. In Wake County, for example, a group opposed to the integration plan sought to unseat school board members in a recent election. But proponents of the plan successfully staved off attacks by pointing to the achievement results in the district. Wake County's low-income students are doing substantially better than low-income students in other urban North Carolina districts with concentrated poverty. On the 2005 High School End-of-Course exams, 63.8 percent of Wake County's low-income students passed, compared with 47.8 percent in Mecklenburg County, 47.9 percent in Guilford County, and 48.7 percent in Durham County. Likewise, 64.3 percent of Wake County's black students passed, compared with 46.8 percent in Mecklenburg County, 47.5 percent in Guilford County, and 52.7 percent in Durham County.
Meanwhile, Wake County's middle-class students are achieving at high levels. The results in Wake are consistent with national research, which finds that middle-class students do well in economically integrated schools as long as concentrations of poverty do not reach above the 50 percent level. Economic mixing does not harm middle-class students, in part because the majority sets the tone in a school, and in part because middle-class students, on average, are less affected by the school environment than are low-income students (Kahlenberg, 2001).
If educators are serious about raising overall achievement and narrowing achievement gaps, more districts should consider giving all students the chance to attend majority—middle-class public schools. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. students are middle-class; surely we can find creative ways to reduce the economic isolation of the remaining one-third. If not, the noble aspiration to significantly reduce the achievement gap will remain an unfulfilled promise.

Brown, C. (2004). Choosing better schools: A report on student transfers under the No Child Left Behind Act. Washington, DC: Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.

Coleman, J. S., Campbell, E. Q., Hobson, C. J., McPartland, J., Mood, J. M., Weinfeld, F. D., et al. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education/National Center for Education Statistics.

Finder, A. (2005, Sept. 25). As test scores jump, Raleigh credits integration by income. The New York Times, section 1, p. 1.

Fiske, E. B. (2002). Controlled choice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Divided we fail: Coming together through public school choice (pp. 167–208). New York: Century Foundation Press. Available:

Freivogel, W. H. (2002). St. Louis: Desegregation and school choice in the land of Dred Scott. In Divided we fail: Coming together through public school choice (pp. 209–235). New York: Century Foundation Press. Available:

Harris, D. (in press). Beating the odds or losing the war? A national portrait of student achievement in high-poverty schools. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Henig, J. R., & Sugarman, S. D. (1999). The nature and extent of school choice. In S. D. Sugarman & F. R. Kemerer (Eds.), School choice and school controversy(pp. 13–35). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

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

Kahlenberg, R. D. (2003, May/June). The new Brown: Integration by class, not race, can fix schools in poor cities. Legal Affairs, 30–35.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002).Condition of education, 2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Robb, J. (2006, Jan. 24). School busing plan is based on income. Omaha World-Herald, p. 1A.

Rumberger, R. W., & Palardy, G. J. (2005). Does segregation still matter? The impact of student composition on academic achievement in high school. Teachers College Record, 107(9), 1999–2045.

Silberman, T. (2002). Wake County Schools: A question of balance. In Divided we fail: Coming together through public school choice (pp. 141–163). New York: Century Foundation Press. Available:

Wells, A. S., & Crain, R. L. (2005). Where school desegregation and school choice policies collide. In J. T. Scott (Ed.),School choice and diversity (pp. 59–76). New York: Teachers College Press.

Richard D. Kahlenberg has contributed to educational leadership.

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