What a Funder-Backed Report Says About Socioeconomic Integration

In a time when the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, a new report finds that socioeconomic integration of public schools produces positive outcomes for both low- and middle-income students.

The report, "School Integration in Practice: Lessons From Nine Districts," was published recently by the Century Foundation, a progressive-oriented think tank that includes several prominent education funders among its supporters. Supporters of the Century Foundation include Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Based on a series of case studies in nine school districts and charters, including schools in Cambridge, Massachussetts; Dallas, Texas; Hartford and Stamford, Connecticut; Louisville, Kentucky; and New York City, the report found that socioeconomic diversity policies produce stronger academic outcomes and better prepare students for a diverse society. According to the study, low-income students in Stamford performed higher than the state average, while gaps in graduation rates between poor and more affluent students fell considerably. Other districts reported lower gaps in academic performance between African American and Latino students, and their white counterparts.

The Century Foundation’s study comes 50 years after the publication of the Coleman Report, regarded by some as the foundational work in educational sociology. In that report, James Coleman, then a little-known Johns Hopkins sociologist, argued that students’ socioeconomic status was a greater predictor of academic success than school factors such as teachers and facilities. Coleman’s remedy for academic achievement gaps was greater integration of poor and middle class children.

In 1996, only a few districts pursued a policy of integrating students from different income levels. Twenty years later, nearly 100 districts are pursuing such policies. National policymakers have taken notice. U.S. Education Secretary John King has said that socioeconomically diverse schools is the best thing the nation can do for today’s school children, regardless of race or family income.

We hope funders are paying attention to Century’s findings, as well as those of other reports that have lent further support to Coleman’s work 50 years ago. These studies suggest that reducing segregation by income level is one of the most effective means for raising academic performance and improving college readiness among disadvantaged children.

A big question, of course, is how to reduce segregation. We've argued often here that funders interested in achieving this all-important goal need to take aim at the exclusionary practices that block the building of multi-family apartments in suburbs, which serves to keep lower income Americans from moving to these areas. As well, we've commented often on the promise of housing mobility, a strategy that is catching on among more funders. One thing is clear: education funders need to look well beyond the classroom and individual schools to how the patterns of residential life in the United States deeply impact student learning.