Commentary

Why school integration matters to poor kids

January 4, 2013 

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

As Kahlenberg says in an illuminating new piece in American Educator magazine, research shows that poor kids transferred to schools with middle-class majorities do better academically, on average, than in schools with low-income majorities. Why?

Kahlenberg offers three reasons: predominantly middle-class schools have student peers with better study habits and behavior, parents who are more involved in the school and more likely to complain about problems, and stronger teachers with higher expectations for their students.

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 you remember the ’70s? We tried putting poor black kids into affluent white neighborhood schools and vice versa. It was a well-intentioned, disheartening failure. Voters rebelled against boundary changes and busing. Affluent parents abandoned socioeconomically 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 new piece, “From All Walks of Life: New Hope for School Integration,” he describes a small but increasing number of successful experiments in socioeconomic balance. Skeptics like me should at least acknowledge that many affluent American parents want their children to mix with low-income students, so long as everyone is getting a challenging education.

I asked Kahlenberg how Washington area schools might move in this direction. In suburban districts such as Maryland’s Montgomery County, he said, “greater integration could be facilitated by creating whole school (as opposed to within-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.” School boundary adjustments could help.


With socioeconomic integration still difficult to arrange, conscientious educators have tried instead to bring the habits and expectations of rich schools to poor ones. They hire only principals and teachers with high expectations for inner-city kids. They make the school day and year longer to compensate for the lack of middle-class enrichment at home. They insist on students obeying the same attendance and classroom behavior rules found in affluent schools. They prepare all students for college, as private schools do.

They are, in essence, embracing Kahlenberg’s point, that middle-class values produce better students. So I think Kahlenberg is wrong to think such schools weaken his argument for socioeconomic integration. I don’t accept his view that the KIPP charter school network, a favorite of mine, looks significantly better than it is because it loses some weak students and has better parents. KIPP is not perfect, but many researchers have verified its progress. Kahlenberg’s arguments are weakened by old data and unexamined assumptions.

He is much better highlighting the growth of socioeconomic integration. When he started work on his 2001 landmark book, “All Together Now,” there was only one district, with 8,000 students, using that approach. Now, there are 80 districts, with 4 million students. Wake County, in North Carolina, which briefly abandoned its experiment, has returned to integration because parents refused to let it go.

Teachers having success in schools without socioeconomic 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.

The Washington Post

Jay Mathews is an education columnist at The Washington Post.

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