Right now in America (the land of opportunity and democracy), our public schools (funded by taxpayers and imparted with the job of teaching all children) are more segregated now than ever before. We are more segregated than before Mendez v. Westminster (1947)[1], more than before Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954), more than before the Civil Rights movement.

Children in America today are less likely than ever to go to school with people different from themselves. Poor kids go to school with poor kids. Wealthier kids go to school with wealthier kids. While race/ethnicity are significant factors, the segregation that has the greatest impact on achievement is not race but class.

There is much to be said about segregation (see Kahlenberg, Orfield, Putnam, This American Life among many, many others), but suffice to say that the large and immediate brunt of our segregated schools has fallen on the heads of poor children. The heartbreaking, shameful reality is that the children with the greatest need – the little five year olds who are hungry, who sleep on the floor, whose parents struggle, and who still manage to get to school in the morning – get our worst. And, no surprise, it shows.

These kids who start out disadvantaged end up educationally disadvantaged to a huge degree. They start high school more than three years behind (Palardy 2008), they are five times more likely to drop out of high school (Chapman, Laird, Ifill, & KewalRamani, 2011), are less likely to earn a bachelors degree, etc. etc. etc. And this is just the easy to measure stuff.

BUT! When poor kids attend wealthier schools, they perform like wealthier kids. The socioeconomic status of the SCHOOL has just as much impact on achievement as the socioeconomic status of the family (Rumberger & Palardy 2005). I repeat, because it is super important: the class demographics of a school are just as important for a child’s academic success as the income of the family.

We can throw more money at poor schools (which we don’t really do… but still…), and we can institute all kinds of progressive or draconian policies, but the one thing that truly works in closing the achievement gap for poor students is to send them to school with wealthier students.

This is NOT because wealthier students/families are in any way “better.” That’s just gross. Researchers are trying to determine, quantify, and explain why integrated school benefit poor children. The best guesses at this point include the presence of middle class parents who have the expectation that it is their job as a parent to hold teachers/administrators “accountable” and the time to volunteer in the classroom, teacher retention and experience (middle-class schools tend to have less turnover and more experienced teachers), peer influence and exposure to middle-class opportunities and expectations and an embodied sense that poor kids CAN belong and DO deserve the same things as middle class kids, the number of advanced classes offered, and increased funds raised by PTA and other parent organizations. (For a nice overview of this research, see: Kahlenberg, (2003) All Together Now, and Frankenberg and Orfield (2012) The Resegregation of Suburban Schools)

For all this to impact a student, the school needn’t even be a rich school – it might need only 30% middle class enrollment to perform as middle class schools perform. So, for the positive effects, the school may still be high poverty, just not only high poverty.

The saddest part is that we know this. I mean, for real, we know it. Our educational leaders have tried – through busing and magnet schools – to integrate. There has been some success, indeed, but even more exciting are the opportunities we have now to make real change from the ground up.

Across the country, younger middle-class families are moving back into our cities and inner-ring suburbs at phenomenal rates; this reurbanization offers a prime opportunity to build real integration. Because we are living in more mixed neighborhoods, the hope of creating integrated schools is eminently more feasible. But we parents have to choose it.

[1] The Mendez v. Westminster case in Southern California ruled against the segregation of Mexican/Mexican-American students into “Mexican Schools.”