In the decades following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, many school districts engaged in a grand experiment of racial desegregation through compulsory busing. Although desegregation significantly raised the academic achievement of black students, it also fostered an enormous white backlash in the 1960s and ’70s, which helped move the entire country to the right politically. Since then, most of the school reform movement has avoided school integration, instead favoring ideas like charter schools, private school vouchers, and merit pay for teachers. For example, Chester E. Finn Jr., a former Reagan Department of Education official and president of the center-right Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has suggested we should focus on fixing high-poverty schools rather than integrating them—the latter being a project he dismisses as caught in a “time warp” of “social engineering.”

The Diverse Schools Dilemma:
A Parent’s Guide to
Socioeconomically Mixed
Public Schools

by Michael J. Petrilli
Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 119 pp.

But this attitude is beginning to change. Even conservatives are starting to admit that while it is possible to improve individual high-poverty public schools, no one knows how to do it at scale. Majority low-income schools are twenty-two times less likely to be high performing as middle-class schools. And while some high-poverty charter schools do well, the most comprehensive study of charters found that only 17 percent outperformed regular public schools, while 46 percent performed about the same, and 37 percent actually performed worse.

So a new generation of school reformers are taking a second look at school integration. They are backing diversity programs that are updated to focus more on socioeconomic status than race and employ school choice and incentives rather than compulsory busing. The poster child for hard-nosed reform, former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, is backing economic school integration plans in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, and La Crosse, Wisconsin, noting, “Research shows that socioeconomic integration clearly benefits low-income kids.” And now comes Michael Petrilli, a former George W. Bush Education Department official and Chester Finn’s right-hand man at the Fordham Institute, no less, suggesting in a provocative new book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma, that socioeconomic school integration deserves a chance.

Efforts to “fix high-poverty schools” through the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program have proven disappointing, Petrilli writes. “The sobering truth is that none of these efforts—nor similar ones going back twenty-five years—have been very successful.” Accordingly, more than eighty school districts, together educating four million students—from Louisville, Kentucky, to Omaha, Nebraska—are seeking to break up concentrations of school poverty by encouraging school choice that promotes economic integration.

Petrilli (who—full disclosure—interviewed me for the book) suggests there is powerful evidence that on a policy level, socioeconomic integration can have a positive effect on student achievement. He cites the seminal 1966 Coleman Report, a study on educational equality conducted by the sociologist James S. Coleman for the U.S. government, which found that the biggest predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomic status of the family a child comes from, and the second biggest predictor is the socioeconomic status of his or her classmates.

Some of the Coleman Report findings may be explained by self-selection (particularly motivated low-income families end up in middle-class schools), but Petrilli notes that a 2010 Century Foundation study of public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, tried to address that question. Heather Schwartz, a researcher for the RAND Corporation, found that among families randomly assigned to public housing units throughout Montgomery County, those who were placed in low-poverty neighborhoods and schools performed far better over time than those in higher-poverty neighborhoods and schools—even though the latter spent $2,000 more per pupil.

Why should it matter whether a student has low-income or middle-class classmates? Petrilli cites three reasons: peers learn from one another, and in middle-class schools low-income students are exposed to classmates with larger vocabularies and higher levels of academic engagement on average; middle-class parents are in a position to more actively volunteer in school and monitor what goes on; and stronger teachers tend to be attracted to schools with solidly middle-class student populations. Put bluntly, Petrilli notes, “teachers practice on poor children, then take their improved skills to affluent children.”

From a political perspective, Petrilli notes that there is an exciting new opening for socioeconomic school integration as more and more parents are affirmatively looking for a diverse environment for their children (and are not especially eager to pay the financial premium associated with living in more affluent school districts). Some “middle-class or upper-middle-class Gen-X and Gen-Y parents,” writes Petrilli, “embrace the idea of our children living, learning, and playing side by side with kids from other cultures and economic backgrounds.” In an increasingly diverse country, many families want their children to “know how to cross boundaries of race, class, and culture.”

Schools in gentrifying parts of Washington, D.C., for example, are seeing a “Caucasian invasion.” Intentionally integrated charter schools such as Capital City Public Charter School in Washington and the Denver School of Science and Technology have long waiting lists of upper-middle-class parents who see education in a diverse environment as desirable.

Petrilli builds all this policy analysis into an engaging personal story, told in a breezy and accessible manner. The narrative is driven by Petrilli and his wife’s own search for a school for their children. Like many middle-class parents, they want school diversity, “but we worry about the potential costs.”

Visiting Piney Branch Elementary School in mixed-income Takoma Park, Maryland, Petrilli asks the principal if sending his son would be a mistake. “Is it going to slow him down if his classmates are several years behind or still learning the language?” Will his child be safe? Will the school be a test prep factory?

These concerns are not racist or classist, but based on available data: rates of violence are higher in high-poverty schools, and there is evidence that sending an individual middle-class child to a very high-poverty school could have a negative effect on his or her achievement.

But schools, Petrilli notes, “are much safer than our society at large.” Research finds that “Americans in general are almost twenty times more likely to be victims of violent crime than are students while they are at their diverse schools.” (This remains true even when factoring in horrific school shootings like the recent one in Newtown, Connecticut.) And while very high-poverty schools can reduce achievement for all students, sending your child to a mixed-income school where at least 50 percent of the students are middle class has no negative effect on academic achievement.

Even conservative opponents of busing for racial desegregation concede that white scores did not decline as schools integrated. And, as Petrilli finds in his own search, average test scores can be misleading. According to, a widely used website that rates schools by overall student outcomes from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest), Piney Branch, which is 33 percent low income, had a mediocre 6 rating. But more than 95 percent of its white students scored proficient, and very high proportions rated advanced. “Its average test scores might not be so great, but its white students are knocking it out of the park,” Petrilli writes.

If low-income students benefit from socioeconomic integration, how is it possible that middle-class students are not hurt? First, because schools like Piney Branch are still majority middle class and the numerical majority sets the tone in a school. Second, because low-income and minority students have been found by a long line of researchers—from Coleman to Caroline Hoxby to Eric Hanushek—to be more sensitive to changes in school quality given the weaker family environments on average found in low-income households. And, finally, most schools employ ability grouping in at least some subjects, such as math, which enables all students to move at their own pace.

Among education researchers, ability grouping is a hotly contested subject, and extreme forms of tracking can undermine the benefits of integration. But most schools only use ability grouping for certain subjects, and research has shown in jurisdictions from Montgomery County to St. Louis, Missouri, that even when ability grouping is employed, low-income students benefit greatly from being in middle-class schools.

Some schools, like Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, have adopted promising innovations on the question of tracking. As Petrilli notes, B-CC High School educates a wide group of students. “We’ve got the ambassadors’ kids, and we’ve got their maids’ kids,” the principal tells Petrilli. The school eliminated tracking in biology and now teaches mixed-ability classes, with some students given more challenging assignments that go into greater depth than others. This system works well, says Petrilli: “B-CC continues to excel academically while also making the most of its rich diversity.”

I won’t spoil the story by saying where Petrilli’s family ends up, other than to note that he remains ambivalent about his decision. But this book may be a significant—and hopeful—harbinger that the center-right school reform community, battered down by the humbling experience of trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, may be willing to take a new look at how to reinvent Brown v. Board of Education for the twenty-first century.

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Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.