Friday, June 22, 2007

Social Science Findings about School Integration

Last fall, 553 social scientists from more than 200 institutions across the country signed a social science statement which summarized decades of research about: 1) the benefits of integrated schools for students and communities; 2) the harms of segregated schools; and 3) what is known about the efficacy of race-neutral student assignment plans. From that social science statement, we have put together a sheet of summarizing these findings:

For anyone interested in more detail or looking for some summer reading material, the social science statement (with citations to research on each of the points above) can be found here.

This social science statement, incidentally, is the fifth filed in school desegregation cases considered by the Supreme Court. The first statement was filed in the cases that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which cited social science evidence in footnote 11.


Oral Arguments from Seattle and Louisville: Audio and Transcripts

Supreme Court oral arguments from the Louisville case:

Supreme Court oral arguments from the Seattle case:


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Home Alone -- For Good?

In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Erica Goode's "Home Alone" reports on the recent work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and colleagues, in examining the effect of racial and ethnic diversity on community interaction. Putnam's findings as reported by Goode appear surprising, counter-intuitive and bleak: "What if, at least in the short term," Goode asks, "living in a highly diverse city or town led residents to distrust pretty much everybody, even people who looked like them? What if it made people withdraw into themselves, form fewer close friendships, feel unhappy and powerless and stay home watching television in the evening instead of attending a neighborhood barbecue or joining a community project?" This, according to the article, is a pretty accurate description of (some of) diversity's effects. Diversity leads to discomfort, which leads to "social isolation and a weakening of civic bonds."

Using information from the 2000 Census in conjunction with a survey of almost 30,000 residents of 41 communities nationwide, Putnam and his colleagues found diversity to be inversely proportional to levels of trust, community engagement, and even reported quality of life. The immediate reaction from dyed-in-the-wool liberals -- or "Sesame Street" types, as labeled by Goode -- at least judging from my own response and that of friends with whom I discussed the study, was not unanticipated. "I bet they didn't take community size/crime/transience/whatever into effect," you might say, but for the most part, they seem to have done so. The age, affluence, poverty, citizenship, ethnicity, language, commuting time, education level, residential mobility, homeownership, gender, financial satisfaction, work hours, area of the country, census tract population density, and comparative income of all survey respondents was also taken into account statistically, and the findings still held. For anyone who still thinks something has been left out or miscalculated (and my friends have some ideas, largely centering around poor self-reporting and underestimation-- "living in New York makes me want to go home and watch Entourage on TV constantly, and I might tell a statistician that I do, but I'm really too busy doing community things"), Goode reports Putnam to be glumly confident that these factors, too, can be examined and ruled out.

It is a reluctant conclusion for Putnam, according to Goode, because he is in fact a big proponent of the value of diversity himself. Goode closes her article with a reference to Putnam's "optimistic" hope that people's views of and reactions to diversity may change over time, and quotes him as saying that "people like me, who are in favor of diversity, don’t do ourselves any favors by denying that it takes time to become comfortable." It is left to the reader, however, to imagine how such a shift might occur in a population of listless, depressed recluses, shunning outside contact in favor of quality time with the television. Wouldn't it be easiest if we all just relocated to rural South Dakota, where we would be twice as likely to trust people from different racial backgrounds, right up until they actually moved into the neighborhood?

As a matter of fact, an entire third of Putnam's paper is devoted to the topic of "Becoming Comfortable with Diversity," a portion of the study almost uniformly overlooked by news reports on his findings. (The Saguaro Seminar, Putnam's research collective at the Kennedy School, openly criticizes many news articles as biased or otherwise inaccurate, although Goode's is not among them.) In this section, Putnam observes that racial and ethnic "diversity," as social constructs, are fairly malleable concepts to begin with. Arguing not for a glorified melting pot but for a society where individuals identify themselves in a wider range of ways, Putnam envisions reducing the social divisions caused by racial and ethnic identities while preserving the personal importance of the identities themselves. In other words, Putnam believes, we need to figure out how to create strong identities that are shared across racial lines.

In examining institutional ways to forge such permeable shared identities, Putnam singles out two: the evangelical "megachurch," and the United States Army. Both, he suggests, have changed greatly in the past several decades to move from uniquely segregated environments to powerful forces of social integration. In the Army, which Putnam describes as having been in the not-so-distant past "not a race-relations success story," today's soldiers have been found to have many more and closer interracial friendships than their similar civilian counterparts. This reduction of divisive social boundaries to the point that the US Army has become a "relatively color-blind institution," Putnam says, is evidence that "something that the Army has actually done...has had the effect of reconstructing social identities and increasing social solidarity even in the presence of ethnic diversity."

Putnam demurs as to possible causes for this, but the Army's success in creating these "bridging" bonds is especially relevant to the school integration debate. In fact, the military has worked extremely hard to integrate every aspect of its soldiers lives, from their barracks to their service academies to their children's schools. As detailed here, the military was a pioneer in the fight for school integration, desegregating its own schools before Brown v. Board, and their unique voice had special power in the fight to keep America's colleges and universities diverse. If the experience of the military is to be an example, a big part of the process towards becoming comfortable with diversity is simply to be immersed in it.

Putnam does, indeed, believe that in the long run, whatever negative effects his study found to result from exposure to diversity are far outweighed by the long-term benefits of a diverse society. In the meantime, it is more important than ever that Americans overcome what Putnam may have proven to be a serious hindrance to success in that society as fast as possible. How do we get there? "To strengthen shared identities, we need more opportunities for meaningful interaction across ethnic lines where Americans (new and old) work, learn, recreate, and live," Putnam concludes. "Community centers, athletic fields, and schools were among the most efficacious instruments for incorporating new immigrants a century ago, and we need to reinvest in such places and activities once again, enabling us all to become comfortable with diversity."

To learn more about the Saguaro's research on social capital and diversity, go to


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New Study Finds Segregated Schools Hinder Reading Skills

CHAPEL HILL – Children in families with low incomes, who attend schools where the minority population exceeds 75 percent of the student enrollment, under-perform in reading, even after accounting for the quality of the literacy instruction, literary experiences at home, gender, race and other variables, according to a new study.

The majority of black and Hispanic children in the United States attend such “minority segregated” schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The study, by the FPG Child Development Institute (FPG) and the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examined reading development from kindergarten to third grade for 1,913 economically disadvantaged children. The children were part of the Children from Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten Cohort, a nationally representative sample of more than 22,000 children enrolled in approximately 1,000 kindergarten programs.

To read more, see


Monday, June 18, 2007

A Diversity Leader – Berkeley’s Student Assignment Plan

A California court recently held that the Berkeley Unified School District (“BUSD”), one of the first school districts in the nation to desegregate voluntarily, could consider the racial composition of a student’s neighborhood in a student assignment plan designed to maintain racial diversity in Berkeley public schools.

The History: Following the Brown decision, a citizens’ commission concluded that Berkeley suffered from severe housing segregation that led to racial isolation in its schools. In 1968, BUSD became one of the first school districts in the nation to voluntarily integrate its schools. In 1995, BUSD adopted a comprehensive plan to preserve integration in its schools in light of continued residential segregation in the city.

In April 2004, in Avila v. Berkeley Unified School District, the Alameda Superior Court ruled that BUSD’s plan to preserve ethnically and racially integrated schools does not violate Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative that banned the use of racial preferences in government, public education and employment. Judge James Richman said in the Avila ruling, “although Proposition 209 specifically applies to public education, its text does not mention voluntary desegregation plans or otherwise indicate that prohibited discrimination or preferential treatment includes a race-conscious assignment plan that seeks to provide all students with the same benefit of desegregated schools.”

The Current Plan: BUSD’s current plan, adopted in February 2004, assigns each neighborhood a diversity rating as a means to promote diversity at the city’s 11 elementary schools and in Berkeley High School’s small schools program. The current plan seeks to ensure that the student population in each elementary school reflects the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the total elementary school population of the school’s attendance zone within a target range of plus or minus 5-10%.

The Elementary Student Assignment Plan is founded on BUSD’s belief that: “diversity in our students population enriches the educational experience of students; advances educational and occupational aspirations; enhances critical thinking skills, facilitates the equitable distribution of resources; reduces, prevents or eliminates the effects of racial and social isolation; … and promotes participation in a pluralistic society.”

The Mechanics: The Elementary Student Assignment Plan (“Plan”) divides the district’s 11 elementary schools among three attendance zones. The entire district is further divided into 445 planning areas, of between 4 and 8 city blocks in size. Each planning area is assigned a diversity category designation of 1 to 3. The diversity category number assigned is calculated based upon three factors: the percentage of “students of color” in the planning area; the planning area’s level of parent income; and the planning area’s level of parent education. Each factor is weighed equally in calculating the diversity category number. Parents of elementary school children submit a preference form, indicating their top three elementary school choices.

BUSD assigns students based on six priority categories:

  1. Currently attending the school and residing in the zone;
  2. Currently attending the school and residing outside the zone;
  3. Sibling currently attending the school (in category 1 or 2);
  4. Not currently attending and residing within the zone;
  5. Not currently attending and residing outside the zone;
  6. Inter-district transfers.

Within each priority category, a student is assigned to a particular school based upon their preference, as well as the diversity category number assigned to the planning area in which the student lives.

The High School Small School Assignment Plan applies to the one high school in the district, Berkeley High. In addition to the regular high school curriculum, Berkeley High offers students the opportunity to pursue a more specialized curriculum either in one of its four “small schools” or in one of its two academic programs. The district selects students for the regular high school and the small schools based upon several diversity characteristics: the diversity/planning area category numbers used in the elementary school assignments; English-language learners; and special education needs. As with the elementary schools, assignment to the small school programs is partly determined by the diversity category of the neighborhood in which the student lives.

Assignment and Race: In April 2007, an Alameda Superior Court ruling held that neither the Elementary Student Assignment Plan nor the High School Small School Assignment Plan violate Proposition 209 because no assignment decisions are based upon the race of an individual student. Instead the assignment criteria take into account multiple factors related to the geographic area in which a student lives, only one of which is race-conscious. In other words, the racial makeup of the entire student population in a given planning area – not an individual student’s race – is a factor in assignment decisions. The court further held that the “integration plan” developed by the school board, in which the diversity of a student’s neighborhood is a factor in assignment decisions, does not offend Proposition 209 because it does not discriminate or grant preferences on the basis of race or ethnicity.