Does racial diversity equal better schools?

Nov 13, 2013

Coverage of desegregation in Detroit's public schools in the Detroit Free Press.
Coverage of desegregation in Detroit's public schools in the Detroit Free Press.
Credit clipping courtesy of Ray Litt / via Detroit Free Press

In 1973, when the NAACP challenged school segregation in Detroit, schools were more diverse than they are today. Back then, about a third of Detroit school children were white. Now, only 4% of kids in the city are white.

But there’s not much contemporary urgency around racial integration in education. Abby Phelps has worked in the Detroit Public Schools for almost 30 years. As she walks me around Carstens Elementary on the city's east side, we talk about her memories of school in Detroit when she was a girl, when the fight over desegregating schools was raging. Phelps said she felt, when compared with her white peers, "I had to be better than the best. I had to prove my integrity and I felt I had to do twice as much." 

Phelps' experience shows just how central race can be in shaping lives. In her case, it had a lot to do with her drive and her attitude about education. But surprisingly little is known about the educational value of diversity. 

Many schools in Detroit would be a bad place to test any theory about diversity. The school Phelps works at is over 98% black, and it is no different than the majority of Detroit schools. 

Does diversity make better schools? 

In short, the answer is that we don't really know. Sean Reardon studies achievement gaps (the difference between how one group of students performs compares to another group) as a professor at Stanford University. When you compare black, white, and Latino students, Reardon says you see the importance not so much of race, but of class.

"Over the last 40 or so years, the black-white achievement gap and the Hispanic-white achievement gap have narrowed a lot," Reardon said. "On the other hand, the gap between high and low income students has increased quite dramatically." Reardon said that particular gap has grown about 40% since the 1980s. 

But while economic diversity may matter more in ensuring a quality education, that doesn't mean people want to give up on racial and ethnic diversity. Ray Litt, a community activist involved in the Milliken v. Bradley case, reflected, "The desegregation action was to provide a quality integrated venue in which students and staff are exposed to and can interact with kids of different races religions and economic status," he said. "We all need to be able to be comfortable, not tolerating, a society that is the melting pot."

Evidence about the value of diversity tends to run in that vein -- that it will make students better people, or more adaptable. Reardon says beyond that, there isn't a lot of momentum in studying positive effects of diversity. Reardon also points out the solution to more racially integrated schools somewhat radical, since it calls for either changing the ways school districts or neighborhoods are structured. 

Changing neighborhoods isn’t easy. There would need to be some pretty compelling evidence that this change would be worth it. So while there are many who wish schools were more diverse, there isn’t really a push to figure out what diversity could get us.  

Visit our website dedicated to the first-hand accounts and news reports from this highly divisive, but critical moment in Detroit Public School history.