Our nation spends over half a trillion dollars each year on public schools. We tend to think of educational resources as limited to those things that this money buys, like books, buildings, buses and teachers. But schools enjoy any number of resources that they do not and cannot buy, such as the communities, public services, partnerships and private industries surrounding and supporting them. And the most important non-economic resource that schools enjoy is their students and families.
Common sense, as well as decades of social science, indicates that students learn not only from their teachers but from their peers. In particular, middle-income peers (and their families) bring a host of experiences, outside learning and high expectations to schools that positively impact every other student in the school. The percentage of middle-income students in a school is generally more important to the quality of education students receive than any other resource in the school. Students, regardless of their individual socio-economic status or race, achieve at higher levels in predominantly middle-class schools and achieve at lower levels in predominantly poor schools.
Each year when school board members sit down to reaffirm old student assignment policies or adopt new ones, they are making decisions about how to distribute these most vital of resources. Everyone instinctively knows this. That is why local communities fight so hard to maintain middle-income students in their schools. In fact, some communities want their schools to be exclusively middle income.
What these communities fail to appreciate is that no meaningful gains accrue from increasing a school from, say, 65 percent middle income to 75 percent. What matters is whether a school is majority middle income or majority poor, because the majority sets the tone for the school. Once that tone is set, everyone benefits.
While nothing significant is added by further driving up the percentage of middle-income students in a school, much is lost. Both groups of students are deprived of a diverse educational environment, which research shows promotes critical thinking skills.
It comes as news to most, but middle-income white students are actually the most racially isolated student group in the country. Their parents may send them off to college with high GPAs and SATs, but they too often send them off unprepared for the diverse colleges and global job market that they will compete in.
Equally problematic, when low-income students are denied access to middle-income schools, they see the poverty levels go up and the achievement levels go down in the schools they attend. They are deprived of meaningful interaction with students who, because of family education or wealth, have a very different life expectation and understanding of education’s role in achieving that expectation.
The fact is that both groups of students gain valuable life skills and experiences from one another, and the entire school and broader community benefit.
Two years ago, I studied this phenomenon in North Carolina. I found a lot of districts providing minority students unequal access to middle-income peers, but I also found just as many providing equal access. The difference in the racial achievement gap between these two groups of districts was drastic.
Those providing minority students with equal access to middle-income peers had the lowest achievement gaps in the state, while those providing the most unequal access had the highest achievement gaps. For instance, the Latino achievement gap was nearly twice as high in districts providing unequal access as those providing equal access.
In short, the study revealed two things: unequal access to middle-income peers is not inevitable and, when schools provide equal access, racial achievement gaps shrink.
As Wake County continues to debate its student assignment plan, its school board members and residents should consider these two realities and resist the temptation to believe that neighborhood schools can make separate equal. The financial resources they would spend pursuing policies to make separate schools equal would dwarf the costs of integrated schools, while offering only a fraction of the educational gains.
Derek W. Black is a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. He is a graduate of UNC’s law school and was a visiting faculty member there. His study of middle-income peers is available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2008731.