Diversity in Schools: The Real Solution to DC’s Achievement Gap?

Kerry Belodoff, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

There is increasing evidence that school diversity has important cognitive and social benefits for all students. Beyond academic outcomes, diverse schools better prepare students to positively contribute in an increasingly diverse nation. In the wake of recent events that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, we need more than ever to prepare children to have interracial respect, cultural competency, and empathy. Yet, at time when preparing our children for a diverse nation is more important than ever, communities are seeing sustained segregation in schools. This is no more true than in the District of Columbia where in 56% of schools more than 90% of the student population is composed of a single race. To prepare DC students to succeed in college, careers, and life, the District should pursue policies that encourage diversity and integration.

What do DC Schools look like?

Despite prolonged educational reform efforts in the District including an influx of charter schools and school choice, a strong teacher evaluation system, and some of the highest per student funding in the country, DC students are still lagging behind the nation. Recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that despite improvements from previous years, DC students score significantly below the national  average  in mathematics, reading, writing, and science. At the same time, DC possesses the greatest achievement gap between black and white, and Hispanic and white students, in the country. Efforts to integrate DC’s racially segregated schools could lead to significant improvements in outcomes overall, and narrow the stark gap between white students and students of color.

The map below shows the diversity of DC schools. As the map shows,  most DC schools lack diversity and the least diverse schools are clustered in Northeast and Southeast DC. Most striking is that 12 schools in the District are composed of 100% African American students. Such homogenous student populations in DC are likely contributing to the low achievement and high racial gaps that exist.  (Click HERE for an interactive version of this map)

Map for Kerry
Data Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Local Education Agency (School District) Universe Survey”, 2013-14 v.1a.

An often-touted policy solution to low student achievement is increasing school choice, which is a broad term referring to policies that allow families choice in their child’s school assignment, as opposed to traditional school assignment based on geographic boundaries. In the District, this option is readily available. In fact, only 28% of DC students attend their in-boundary school. However, according a recent report out of Teachers College at Columbia University, “mounting evidence suggests that accountability and school choice policies, premised on narrow definitions of school quality and absent interventions to support diversity, exacerbate racial and social-class segregation and inequality.” Fortunately, there are additional policy actions that have the potential to spark integration and increase school diversity in DC. Below are models from two cities that have succeeded in increasing school diversity and can serve as examples  for the District.

The Hartford Model

In 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that racial and class segregation in Hartford was denying students equal access to education, which resulted in a massive initiative to integrate the schools. Hartford’s integration strategy was not simply to increase school choice or initiate busing programs, but instead to design a lottery-based magnet school system that increased opportunities for all students. Magnet schools across Hartford and surrounding areas offer uniquely focused curriculums and pedagogies and no admission requirements, so that students can attend schools that align  with their interests and needs. These schools are required to maintain student populations that are at least 25% white; however, race cannot be used as an admission requirement, meaning that schools need to actively market and engage students and parents across the city to stay open. The results were huge: By 2013, state reading scores showed that the gap between black and white, and Hispanic and white students closed by the third grade. While a direct link between the integration efforts and the narrowing achievement gap has not been studied, the striking results suggest integration had a positive impact on test scores of minority students.

In contrast, DC’s few magnet schools are application-based and their populations are on average 92% minority students. Removing application barriers and setting integration targets for DC magnet schools could lead to more diverse student bodies. Currently, there are no magnet schools located in Wards 7 or  8, the most economically disadvantaged and racially segregated areas of the city. Opening additional magnets designed to achieve integration in these areas could lead to the momentous results seen in Hartford.

The Cambridge Model

Cambridge, Massachusetts, while not implementing  measures as dramatic as Hartford’s, has succeeded in creating more balanced and equitable schools through a policy of controlled choice. Through controlled choice, parents are given the opportunity to rank schools based on preference. The district uses family preferences as well as its interest in creating equitable schools to match students to schools. Controlled choice allows the district to balance the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch across schools while still offering families some control over their child’s assigned school.

Research suggests that increasing school diversity could have potent effects on academic, economic, and social outcomes for students in DC (e.g. Gilfoyle, Blatt, & Anderson, 2015; Richeson, Trawalter, & Shelton, 2005; Wells, Fox, Cordovo-Cabo, 2015). Seeking innovative integration policies should be high priority for the District to boost achievement, close racial gaps, and better prepare students for life success.

To learn more about school integration benefits and efforts, listen to a recent two-part episode of This American Life, The Problem We All Live With.  



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