School integration redux

Posted: January 04, 2013

By Jay Mathews

Few education experts have been as true to a seemingly unworkable idea as Richard D. Kahlenberg, an author and senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Since the 1990s, he has been the nation's leading exponent of socio-economic integration. That means he wants as many low-income students as possible to attend schools with a middle-class majority.

As Kahlenberg notes in an illuminating new piece in American Educator magazine, research shows that poor kids transferred to schools with middle-class majorities do better on average than in schools with low-income majorities. Why? He offers three reasons: Middle-class schools provide peers with better study habits and behavior, parents who are more involved and more likely to complain about problems, and stronger teachers with higher expectations.

Because this is a mostly middle-class country, why can't we adjust school boundaries and provide transportation to let all low-income students have these role models and protectors?

People who ask that question get quizzical looks from know-it-alls like me. Don't they remember the '70s? We tried putting poor black kids into affluent, white schools, and vice versa.

It was a well-intended, disheartening failure. Voters rebelled against boundary changes and busing. Affluent parents abandoned integrated schools. Politicians, local and national, Democratic and Republican, gave up on the idea.

But Kahlenberg hasn't, and his point of view has made headway. In his piece, he describes a small but increasing number of successful experiments in socio-economic balance. Skeptics like me should at least acknowledge that many affluent parents want their children to mix with low-income students, so long as everyone is getting a challenging education.

Kahlenberg told me that "greater integration could be facilitated by creating whole-school magnet programs to attract more affluent students into schools located in tougher neighborhoods. Likewise, money could be used to provide a financial bonus for wealthier schools to accept low-income student transfers." Boundary adjustments could help.

With socio-economic integration still difficult to arrange, conscientious educators have tried instead to bring the habits of rich schools to poor ones. They hire principals and teachers with high expectations for inner-city kids. They make the school day and year longer to compensate for the lack of enrichment at home. They prepare all students for college. They are in essence embracing Kahlenberg's point, that middle-class values produce better students.

When Kahlenberg started work on his landmark 2001 book, All Together Now, there was only one district, with 8,000 students, pursuing socio-economic integration. Now there are 80 districts, with four million students. Wake County, N.C., which briefly abandoned its experiment, has returned to integration because parents refused to let it go.

Teachers having success in schools without socio-economic integration are rooting for Kahlenberg, as am I. We should pursue every possible way to help poor kids learn, including Kahlenberg's enlightened explanations of how to give our schools a better mix of family incomes.

Jay Mathews writes for the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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