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Socioeconomic and Racial Integration: Diversifying Schools to Benefit All Students

September 10, 2015
Poverty has become more predictive of a student’s academic performance than any other demographic characteristic.[1] A recent study found children from families below the poverty line suffer physical effects to their brains’ surface area.[2] In fact, the income achievement gap is now twice as large as the racial achievement gap in our country.[3]

By Rae Shih, L’17

As the 1980s saw an end to Brown v. Board court-ordered desegregation initiatives, public schools are more segregated, by both race and class, than they have been in the past 40 years.[4] This segregation not only deprives kids of the opportunity to learn next to peers who are different than themselves, but also directly (and negatively) impacts student performance.[5] Some researchers even consider being born into a poor family and attending a high-poverty school to be a double handicap.[6]

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that poor students at mixed-income schools perform better than poor students at high-poverty schools.[7] There are significant beneficial peer effects from attending a lower-poverty school.[8] Decreasing socioeconomic segregation to one-half the national average is associated with a ten-percentage-point increase in high school graduation rates.[9] The benefits stem from higher teacher quality, parents with more resources or involvment at the school, and higher-achieving peers.[10] One may ask whether we should focus on integrating schools or equipping higher-poverty schools with more resources. Studies show attending a lower-poverty school with less resources promotes greater student achievement than putting more resources in higher-poverty schools.[11]

Potential solutions for addressing student needs

There are several strategies to increase socioeconomic integration within a district or between districts, some already being utilized by forward-thinking districts across the country. 




Model district


Socioeconomic (not racial) quotas

If average % of free and reduced lunch in the district is 60%, then each school must be +/- 10% of that average. If the district is very high poverty, this will only eliminate the 99-100% FRL schools.

Cambridge, MA

Wake County, NC


Geographic zoning

Certain percentage of students in each school must be from a certain neighborhood or zone. Most effective with a stratified population.

Berkeley, CA


Create new school boundaries

Includes students from areas surrounding the district, usually from suburbs.



Building more affordable housing on the edge of the district boundaries

Build affordable housing in conjunction with HUD on the line between suburbs and district. Allows for more diversity in new schools located near this housing.

Montgomery County, MD


Inter-district urban/suburban program

Incentivizing suburban students to attend high-performing magnet and/or charter schools located in the district. Also allow district students to attend schools in the surrounding suburbs.



Increase number of magnet schools

Build more magnet schools, focused on elementary schools to establish a strong foundation for students going on to middle and high schools.



Increase number of charter schools

Create diversity through lotteries that preference socioeconomic status. Place schools between stratified neighborhoods, or target recruitment.

Larchmont Charter Schools, CA; Harlem Success Academies, NY


System-wide change: intra-district open enrollment, portfolio model, etc.

All parents submit a common application for district and charter schools, district assigns families to schools and creates a preference for school diversity.

New York City, NY; Denver, CO; New Orleans, LA; Washington, DC

Special thanks to Halli Bayer of the Broad Foundation for her assistance with this chart.

A benefit to these strategies is not only socioeconomic integration, but racial integration. A plethora of research studies show strong evidence racial diversity has positive effects on math outcomes.[12] Racially diverse schools have smaller gaps in reading achievement between African American and Caucasian students.[13] A study of 22,000 schools found African American and Hispanic students learned more in racially-integrated schools.[14] In 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) jointly published guidance for K-12 and higher education institutions on recognizing the importance of diversity in schools and how schools can pursue racial diversity.[15]

New York recently called for districts and schools to compete for grants to aid in socioeconomic integration as part of a pilot program.[16] Grants of $1.25 million are available to increase student achievement in the state’s low-performing schools.

Both racial and socioeconomic integration are critical for closing achievement gaps. Policymakers would do well to focus on district-level education reform initiatives that prioritize integration in addition to other state-level school reforms, such as teacher preparation and evaluations, more flexible governance models, and school choice. Looking forward, district leaders must consider how socioeconomic integration can work with the equitable access to effective teacher plans states submitted to the Department of Education this past June. If promoting student life outcomes is a priority for our school leaders, communities, and families, socioeconomic and racial integration are a key part of any state and district education plan.

  [1] “Education and Socioeconomic Status Factsheet.” http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/factsheet-education.aspx. Accessed July 25, 2015.

  [2] Kwon, Diana. “Poverty Disturbs Children’s Brain Development and Academic Performance.” Scientific American. July 22, 2015. Accessed July 27, 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/poverty-disturbs-children-s-brain-development-and-academic-performance/.

  [3] The income achievement gap is defined as the average achievement difference between a child from a family at the 90th percentile of the family income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile. Reardon, Sean. “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations.” Stanford University, 2011; Garland, Sarah. “Growing Income Achievement Gap Overshadows Race.” K-12. August 28, 2013. Accessed July 25, 2015. http://hechingerreport.org/growing-income-achievement-gap-overshadows-race/.

  [4] Wihbey, John. “School Resegregation, Race and America’s Future: Recent Research.” May 5, 2014. Accessed July 20, 2015. http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/education/school-segregation-race-americas-demographic-future-update-recent-research.

  [5] Tavernise, Sabrina. “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say.” The New York Times. February 9, 2012. Accessed July 27, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/education/education-gap-grows-between-rich-and-poor-studies-show.html?_r=0.

  [6] “Annotated Bibliography: The Impact of School-Based Poverty Concentration on Academic Achievement & Student Outcomes.” Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC). Accessed July 27, 2015. http://www.prrac.org/pdf/annotated_bibliography_on_school_poverty_concentration.pdf.

  [7] Potter, Halley, and Richard Kahlenberg. “Recent Research Supports District’s Diversity Plan.” Recent Research Supports District’s Diversity Plan : Education : Our Work. January 14, 2013. Accessed July 27, 2015. http://www.tcf.org/work/education/detail/recent-research-supports-districts-diversity-plan.

  [8] PRRAC

  [9] Kahlenberg, Richard D. The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy. New York: Century Foundation Press, 2012. 10.

  [10] Potter and Kahlenberg. “Recent Research”

  [11] Schwartz, Heather. “Housing Policy Is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland.” 2010. Accessed July 20, 2015. https://www.tcf.org/assets/downloads/tcf-Schwartz.pdf.

  [12] Mickelson & Bottia, “Integrated Education and Mathematics Outcomes” at 9 (2009).

  [13] Brown-Jeffy, “The Race Gap in High School Reading Achievement,” 13 Race, Gender & Class 268, 290 (2006).

  [14] Harris, “Lost Learning, Forgotten Promises” (2006).

  [15]  http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201111.html

  [16] “2014-2015 Title I Socioeconomic Integration Pilot.” December 30, 2014. Accessed July 27, 2015. http://www.p12.nysed.gov/funding/2015-18-title-1-ses-integration-grant/home.html

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