New Research: Benefits for white students in integrated schools

By desegdigest | February 17, 2021

This was originally written by Peter Piazza and reposted from our friends at The School Diversity Notebook. You can find the original post here.

This may seem obvious, but I’m stunned by it every time: white students are the most segregated group in American k-12 schools, by a lot. And, it’s basically been that way forever. 

Here’s a chart from the “Harming Our Common Future” report, released by the UCLA Civil Rights Project and Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights (home of this blog) in 2018. This focuses on k-12 education, but the trend is nearly identical in public preschool (similar chart here). A few things to highlight:

  • The typical white student attends a school that is 69% white. This is by far the highest percentage of students that go to school with same-race peers. The typical Latinx student goes to a school that is 55% Latinx. It’s 47% for Black students, and 24% for Asian students.
  • Student of color exposure to white students is not even close to white student exposure to other white students. The typical Asian student attends a school that is roughly 37% white. For Black and Latinx students, it’s basically 25% each.  
  • This is based on 2016-2017 data; so, before the Trump/DeVos years undoubtedly made things worse.

Of course, this is a problem because segregated white schools hoard resources away from schools that serve students of color, even when they’re in the same district

It’s also a major problem for the future of this fragile democracy. Like Nikole Hannah-Jones said at Teens Take Charge’s recent (and outstanding) #ActivistsXAcademics summit, “I would argue that one of the biggest arguments for school integration is what happened at the Capitol on January 6th.” White isolation is indeed connected to white extremism; so, I’m talking about that as well as the ordinary ways that white supremacy is defended in decisions about things like neighborhood zoning or the location of affordable housing

As a white person who attended segregated white public schools and who’s now helping raise two white kids, I’m also speaking personally. By design, my k-12 education centered whiteness in all aspects of our school experience, without addressing whiteness as a racial identity and without questioning the messages about people of color that we inhaled like smog in the air. I’m always in the process of unlearning this mess. Over those years, I mostly certainly produced my own share of smog. I don’t want this process to be quite as treacherous for my young children. I’d rather they weren’t immersed in whiteness the way I was and instead got an early start on helping fix things. 

Meanwhile, research has shown that integrated schools are associated with reduced prejudice and belief in stereotypes as well as more cross-racial friendships and greater comfort with people from different backgrounds. Also at the #ActivistsXAcademics summit, Gary Orfield added this important note: “We’ve looked at school integration for 50 years and there’s virtually no evidence that it’s been detrimental to white students.”

I’m excited, in this post, to share new research that extends those findings. It comes from a project done with Jack SchneiderRachel White and Ashley Carey. It’ll be released soon in Education and Urban Society, but you can see the pre-publication version here

Very quick background: our research comes out of larger work done at the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, described in an earlier post. MCIEA is a group of 8 districts, including Boston, that came together to develop a better (non-test-based) way of understanding school quality and student learning. We have student survey data on things like sense of belonging in school and feelings about civic engagement (full list here). We also serve districts with a variety of enrollment profiles- some with segregated white schools, some with segregated schools serving students of color and lots in between. 

So, we took all the schools in the consortium and organized them according to:

  • “Diverse”: no more than 75% of students from one racial subgroup and at least 25% white students. More details here on why we chose this. 
  • “Not Diverse”: every school that doesn’t meet the above. 

That ended up being 149 schools and more than 25,000 students who took our survey during the 2016-2017 school year. 

Then, we compared survey responses from same-race students in “diverse” and “non-diverse” schools. So, how do white students in “diverse” schools rate their school experience compared to white students in “not diverse” schools. We also compared students of color in “diverse” schools to their counterparts in “not diverse” schools, though I’ll focus on those results in a separate post. 

We found that white students in “diverse” schools reported more positive results in:

  • Student engagement
    • Note: each of these is measured according to a field-tested survey scale of 3-5 questions. 
    • Here’s an example from the student engagement scale: “How often do you get so focused on class activities that you lose track of time?” You can see all survey questions in our appendix. 
  • Civic participation
    • Example: “How important is it to you to actively challenge inequalities in society?”
  • Sense of belonging 
    • Example: “How well do people at your school understand you?” 
  • Physical safety
    • Example: “How often do you worry about violence at your school?”

Again, that’s compared to white students in “not diverse” schools. All differences were statistically significant. 

Findings on student engagement and civic participation track alongside earlier research demonstrating that integrated schools are associated with learning gains and expanded social awareness for all students, including white students. In the interest of space, I’ll focus on two of our findings:

Physical safety

In a recent and contentious debate over attendance zone changes in Howard County, MD, parents opposed to the changes “expressed worries over the potential for more behavioral problems and crime.” Of course, this kind of thing (is it even a dog whistle?) has been a retort of integration opponents for more than a half century.  

But, our study found evidence of what many might suspect: that safety concerns are unfounded. In fact, of all the survey scales that we looked at, the physical safety scale actually had the largest positive difference between white students in “diverse” schools and white students in “not diverse” schools. 

Sense of belonging

This one makes sense to me on a personal level. My segregated white schools were socially stifling. There were really only a few ways to be, all socially constructed at the intersection of race, gender and class. If you deviated from that a bit, you might face social pressure to conform, you might question something in yourself. 

In professional experiences visiting more diverse schools, I’ve talked with educators and students who describe their schools as places where anyone can fit in, where you can find an interest or friend group that feels authentic. It’s hard to imagine how we nurture a vibrant multicultural democracy without spaces like this where young people have room for self-actualization. And, on a much more basic level, it’s hard to imagine that students would be motivated to learn academic content in a place where they feel they don’t belong. 

I’ll admit some mixed feelings when I take a step back and think about these findings. There’s obviously a lot that’s positive- white people have been the main obstacle to school integration since forever, often in vicious and hideous ways. Like others have said, it’s on us to fix it. So, these findings should help push in that direction.

That said, benefits to white students should never be the primary argument for integration. It’s about breaking racial caste through equitable educational opportunity. It’s about addressing historical wrongs (again, hideous historical wrongs), about paying a debt that is owed. It’s just that even those who say they believe in the above still balk when it comes to their own children, perhaps buying into a racialized fear that there’s some kind of sacrifice in it. In an albeit small way, our research is speaking to that fear, suggesting that maybe choosing integration isn’t actually a sacrifice at all.

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