The Benefits of Socio-Economic and Racial Diversity in Schools

A newly published research brief shows the importance of school compositional effects on student outcomes. While it is based on studies conducted in the United States, the study has important implications for Australia. It shows that both socio-economic and racial diversity in schools are beneficial to students in terms of academic results and social understanding. It points to the importance of supporting socio-economically and racially diverse schools.

Fifty years ago, the highly influential Coleman Report in the United States found that the socio-economic status (SES) of students’ peers was one of the important predictors of a child’s academic achievement, and the most important school factor. Since then, there have been numerous re-analyses of this report as well as other studies examining whether and how socio-economic diversity relates to student achievement.

For example, a recent review of studies by the US Government Accountability Office concluded that students in lower SES schools had lower academic outcomes than students in higher SES schools. Another study found that, for high school students, the mean SES of the student body had as much impact on students’ achievement group as an individual student’s SES.

A study by the US National Centre for Education Statistics of student achievement found that students who are not low-income but who attend schools with high shares of low-income students have lower achievement than low-income students attending affluent schools. Yet another study found that students attending schools with high SES were nearly 70% more likely than peers attending low SES schools to enrol in a four-year college or university, in part due to the peer effects in such schools.

Mechanisms explaining these findings relate to the types of peer expectations found in schools of concentrated poverty, fewer challenging curriculum offerings, and the challenges of retaining high quality, experienced teachers in high-poverty schools. These schools educate children with high mobility, children from households that lack space for children to do homework, and children who come to school hungry and/or have other health issues that affect their ability to focus on learning.

The research brief also shows that racial diversity in schools has numerous benefits, including improved academic achievement, enhanced intergroup relations, and positive long-term life outcomes. Each is important for developing community well-being and social cohesion.

Racially diverse learning environments have positive impacts on academic achievement for students of all races. Students of colour achieve at higher levels in racially diverse schools than in segregated schools. In addition, the earlier that students experience desegregated learning environments, the greater the positive impacts on academic success. Students who attend desegregated schools are less likely to drop out of high school. For white students attending racially diverse schools, there is no detrimental impact on academic achievement.

Apart from its beneficial effects for academic achievement, racially diverse schools are also beneficial for intergroup relations. A meta-analysis of more than 500 studies confirms that increased contact between members of different groups can have positive impacts on all groups by reducing prejudice, negative attitudes, and stereotypes while at the same time increasing friendships among members of different groups.

Racially diverse schools also have positive long-term effects on life outcomes. A study of adults who were born between 1945 and 1968 and followed through 2013 found that for black adults, there were significant improvements in long-term outcomes associated with desegregated schooling, including increased educational and occupational attainment, higher college quality and adult earnings, reduction in the likelihood of being incarcerated, and better health.

The research also points to a complicated interplay between the racial and SES contexts of schools, with racial composition mattering in important and different ways from SES composition. A recent study identified the difference between the share of poor students in white students’ schools and the share of poor students in black students’ schools as having the most powerful relationship with academic achievement gaps. This suggests that racial disparities in exposure to poor students is the strongest mechanism responsible for racial achievement gaps.

The research brief indicates the importance of ensuring within-school integration in order to attain benefits for students. It requires professional development to teachers in diverse classrooms and other changes to ensure equitable inclusion of students from all backgrounds.

Finally, the brief concludes with a salutary reminder:

Beyond the research findings, the increasing polarization of our country along racial lines is a grim reminder of the importance of exposing children to differences early in life in order to nurture understanding and empathy – rather than the fear and intolerance that grows from separation. [p.7]

Trevor Cobbold

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