Published: Apr 06, 2011 02:00 AM
Modified: Apr 05, 2011 11:21 PM
Durham Public Schools recently released a strategic plan to accelerate academic progress. However, there is an issue we must address in order to substantially improve academic performance and enhance education in Durham County overall - the segregation of economically disadvantaged students.
Isolating large numbers of students from their more affluent peers creates in inequitable learning environment. Research compiled by The Century Foundation demonstrates a strong relationship between academic failure and concentrations of poverty in schools. Most high-poverty schools struggle with lower student performance, higher dropout rates, high rates of teacher turnover, greater populations of special-needs students, less experienced teachers, and more teachers who work outside of their area of certification.
Implementing integration by socioeconomic status (SES) in Durham can address many of these challenges by minimizing the obstacles encountered by impoverished students while also enriching the lives of their more affluent classmates.Economic Segregation
Durham Public Schools is one of North Carolina's most racially and economically segregated school systems. During the 2008-09 school year, seven out of 12 high schools were racially isolated. On average, white students in Durham attended schools with 61.3 percent middle- or upper-income students, while black students attended schools where only 44.45 percent of students were middle-income or higher.
Consequently, the school district has one of the state's largest black/white achievement gaps, based on end-of-grade testing. Durham posted a composite (reading and math) black/white achievement gap of 38.2 percent climbing well above the state average of 25.4 percent.
Several studies have highlighted the academic and social benefits of school integration. Integrated schools have narrower achievement gaps, lower rates of teacher turnover, lower dropout rates, and more experienced teachers.
Racial and economic integration also offers benefits beyond academic performance. Adults who attended integrated schools have been shown to be more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods later in life, have friends of various races and ethnicities, be employed at more diverse workplaces, and have greater access to professional and social networks.
It is far more costly and difficult to educate high concentrations of impoverished students, but not because growing up impoverished makes it harder for these students to learn. Rather, it is because many of these students must overcome social, economic and cultural obstacles that their more affluent peers do not encounter. SES integration helps ameliorate this concern by providing an educational environment that expands, rather than confines, students' experiences.SES integration
Over the last decade, advocates seeking to successfully diversify schools have turned to SES integration. In 2007, the Supreme Court's Parents Involved decision ruled that school districts cannot assign students based primarily on race, regardless of whether these efforts are meant to desegregate schools. This ruling brought an end to many race-based integration initiatives. However, education advocates found that SES integration can more comprehensively integrate schools without violating this decision.
There is a strong correlation between SES and race as well as SES and academic achievement. In fact, once SES is taken into consideration, the black/white achievement gap all but disappears.
Wake County Public Schools System was nationally recognized for its SES student assignment policy that limited the number of impoverished students to no more than 40 percent at any school. The Wake County School Board recently terminated the diversity policy and now faces vocal indignation from students and parents. The situation demonstrates both the advantages of SES integration and the political fortitude needed to maintain it.Next step needed
DPS's strategic plan for 2011 appears to be a genuine step in the right direction. The school district has set high yet feasible performance standards and will redirect emphasis from raising proficiency rates to assessing student growth. Additionally, the plan states that attempts will be made to create collaborative partnerships with community organization and business interests. More importantly, the school district plans to allocate resources in a more equitable manner.
However, if DPS truly wishes to accelerate student progress, it will have to go beyond pedagogical interventions and improve the actual atmosphere in which students learn.
One of the state's most racially and economically segregated school districts is a prime place to bring pride back to North Carolina public education. Well-intentioned remediations will, at best, preserve the status quo. It is due time that we address the source of the problem and successfully integrate Durham Public Schools.
Tyler Whittenberg is an education policy fellow at the N.C. Justice Center's Education and Law Project.