Mississippi Students Write about Life in their Home State

Carly Sneed is a senior from Pontotoc, Mississippi, which lies between Tupelo and Oxford in the northern section of the state.

Dancing on the Factory Floor

Working with my dad on sticky August mornings,
we swayed and sweated to the beat of heat presses.
The screens for shirts lifted with hydraulic hisses,
like cats in the night but steadier.
With the whir of a thousand paper airplanes cutting through air,
boards of shirts swung exactly sixty degrees left.
Then massive metal arms plunked down,
dropping with the heavy groan of grandfather falling into recliners.
The reluctant clang of metal provided beats to the dance.

On the edges of the shop floor, people would gather.
“Now, I just heard they were moving churches!”
might rise above the rhythm of the presses,
echoing off the highdomed
ceiling and reaching our corner.
“You know, she’s behind on her paperwork.
Been drawn up in a knot about that boyfriend of her’s.”
Their gossip was to our ears
what movement is to the corner of your eye.

Dad and I just focused on our dance.
As the hydraulics lifted, I folded a printed shirt onto a belt,
while he smoothed one onto the press with meticulous motions.With the whirring rotation we paused and swayed,
maybe bent our knees to test for stiffness.
As the press clunked back down with a bang,
we moved on the beat, Dad grabbing another shirt to load
while my hands found the corners of a printed one.
Then, like the circling swing of the press,
we just went round and around.

Jenny Bobo is a senior from Okolona, near Tupelo, in northeast Mississippi.

Chiron

To the ancient Greeks, Chiron was a kindly centaur, mentor to great heroes like Achilles, opposite in nature to his warlike, constantly inebriated brethren. To me, however, Chiron was a full horse, with little tutoring skills except to those younger, rowdier foals he was sometimes pastured with. My Chiron was a quiet gelding, complaisant to simple commands and fairly decent at cart-pulling if given a slow pace to match and lots of praise afterwards. He never balked, kicked, jumped, charged, bit, or even pawed at any human: a true representation of the ideal working Shire. It can be said, however, that his training was rudimentary; he knew little of the life of work beyond the occasional short-lived wagon festivities. Perhaps if he’d been worked more in early years he could have put up with that witch. I sure as hell know I couldn’t have, even with a thousand years of training, even from the tutelage of the greatest centaur the Greeks ever had.

The witch herself arrived one balmy autumn midday, shambling up the sidewalk whilst complaining all the while of her stiff hip and every minute inconvenience of her entire drive. The trailer had blown a tire; her phone had died; the entire world was against her. I leaned against a porch column, attempting to blink away the headache her jabbering would soon form. I’d already been out to the gelding pasture twice that morning; both times at my daddy’s beck to “brush them boys ‘til they shine.” Indeed, they shone. I’d given each boy a quick bath and scraped away the water with a tined brush; Chiron was the most brilliant of the four, his ebony coat highlighted with russet from a long, sunny summer and his wiry mop of mane coiled into lustrous dreadlocks. Mama cut the witch off from her complaint monologue with a polite offer of refreshment and rest. The hag declined, grumbling about needing to see the horse “right now, otherwise we’re wasting time.” I snorted and leapt off the porch, striding across the yard to the gravel road that meandered across the creek up to the gelding pasture. My parents, sister, and the witch all loaded into a set of ATVs and zoomed ahead of me, plodding along with my eyes on the line dividing the chalky rock road and the silky byhalia. When I reached the feeding stalls connected to the front of their forty-acre pasture, no horses were to be seen, only my father banging on the buckets, mimicking the feeding call for all creatures we have ever owned. The boys rounded the corner from the pine forest, thundering their way clumsily to the stalls. They snorted and pawed, eager for food they would not receive, as my sister snuck around behind them, securing each pipe gate to ensure no escape from the witch’s clutches.

The first three horses proved to be inadequate for the witch; she looked Comet, Zeus, and Apollo over without placing one finger on any of them, denouncing each to be “not what she needed.” With each word she slurred from her tobacco-stained teeth, my hatred of her grew. This woman had already been to our home twice, viewing our horses then rattling off after several hours with a declaration of “I need time t’think.” My parents both kept inviting her back, hoping to sell a horse after almost a decade of no sales. She oozed superiority and condescension; she treated my friends like trash, slapping their hocks and jerking their halters down so she could meet their eyes with her own beady, black, soulless gaze. She had yet to inspect Chiron; from what she’d described as the right horse to pair with her other black Shire, I knew she’d settled on Chiron. After the same rough once-over, she proclaimed Chiron to be “good.” I jammed my greasy hands into the pockets of my mud-splattered jeans to stop my body from trembling with anger. She struck a deal with my father for a trial period, and off she whisked my sweet brother. My tears had hardly any time to seep into the dirt smears on my cheeks before the trailer bobbed down the highway and out of sight.

It had been close to five months since she taken him, and the first spider lilies were shooting up from Mama’s raised flower bed. The crone called during a Saturday lunch after a morning of mulching and pruning, explaining that it hadn’t worked out, Chiron had been “too lazy t’fix after all.” So she brought him back the following Thursday. It’s a blessing I wasn’t there to see her, for if I had been, she’d have been sent on her way with a few less teeth. My Mama was the only one home and, therefore, the only one available to help unload Chiron. He shuffled from the back of the trailer, his lips drifting over the soft tufts of milo. He was not the same horse. He’d lost weight, now lacking that roll in his step that made his jolly belly jiggle; his eyes were glassy, blank of all previous expression, even anger. The witch towed him towards the paddock; he tottered behind in a stupor. His gaze wandered from the ground to Mama’s boots then up to her face. If asked today, she’d recall his eyes “lit up like someone threw a match on a brush pile in a drought.” His spark, I believe, was reignited in that instant. And how he chose to rejoice in its return will forever be the reason I believe horses are smarter, and wittier, than people. He jerked to a halt, snapping the witch’s arm back to near his shoulder. She squealed and thumped him on the face, the face! Even my Mama would’ve slapped her for it, but Chiron beat her to the punch. He whipped around, situating his haunches near the hag’s face, and double-kicked the woman’s bad hip, the one she’d bleated about since I’d first met her. Mama says she might’ve actually given a little delighted whoop before fetching the horse and helping the witch to her stubby feet.

The crone wasn’t injured badly, just given something real to complain about for once. She left without much fuss; perhaps, in a moment of clarity, she’d realized her cruelty and just how much injustice she’d done to Chiron. That day after school, I strode quickly up the hill, over the creek and culvert, and through the paddock gate, dreading to see Chiron, broken and weak as my Mama had woefully described. I whistled and glanced around, seeing none of the geldings. Then, their hoofbeats echoed from the fringes of the pines, and a resplendent sight, very much like the day Chiron had left me, emerged a moment later. I marveled at the skinnier figure of my friend, head high as he led the procession of proud Shires into the bodock paddock. His eyes were not glassy; his countenance displayed his usual charm. I yanked the carrot bag from my shoulder and dispersed the treats quickly, my eyes flickering across Chiron’s form as he walked and ate, searching for signs of trauma. Although he was smaller and weaker than his normal self, he showed no feelings of pain, much to my delight. He nudged me, and I wrapped my arms around his arched neck, draped with shaggy coal tresses. This time my tears fell on Chiron’s shoulder and were given ample time to soak into his dusty, matted hair, christening his deliverance from hell.

Although I saw no wounds on Chiron that day, I soon realized there were still plenty lurking in his mind. It took months before he didn’t flinch at a hand being raised or run from the sight of a wagon. For the longest time he wheezed pitifully when confronted with a harness. We slowly coaxed him back into his former self, helping him regain the confidence the witch had stolen from him. Today, he has been rehabilitated to his full being, once again the sage-like elder to the rambunctious weanlings of any given year. I give you my word that I saw him hold lessons in decorum for his little adopted brood in the clover patches just this spring. As for the witch, she was never heard from again, and it’s a good thing, too. Bad things can happen on a farm.

The Elusive Goal of On-Time Graduation

HONOLULU—Angie Anderson loves being a college student. She just doesn’t want to be one forever.

Anderson is a double major in English and theater in the honors program at the University of Hawaii. She commutes an hour each way every day to the campus in Manoa, works as a peer advisor, tutors student athletes, and has a third job performing on a “pirate ship” for tourists. She’s also part of a student improv group whose shows start as late as 11 p.m. to accommodate members with commitments like hers.

The Hechinger Report


“When people hear about my schedule, they say, ‘When do you sleep?’” a peppy Anderson said, smiling, during a rare break. “At the end of the day, I always ask myself, ‘Am I happy? As I’m napping in my car?’ And I am.”

She’s also on track to accomplish something a surprisingly tiny minority of American college and university students these days manage to achieve: graduating with a four-year degree in four years.

Anderson is part of a program the University of Hawaii is helping to pioneer called 15-to-Finish, whose objective is to push students to take the 15 credit hours per semester they need to get through college on time. Most bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits, which works out to 15 credits per semester, two semesters per year, for four years. Yet most students take only 12 credits per semester, which means they immediately fall behind.

“From the time you select in your first semester to take 12 credits, you are already on a five-year plan,” said Blake Johnson, a spokesman for Complete College America, which works to increase the proportion of people nationwide with college and university degrees.

But 12 credits is the threshold at which students get the maximum Pell Grant, the principal form of federal direct financial aid, which may discourage students from taking more credits. Pell money also can’t be used to pay for courses in the summers, when students could catch up. Most state financial-aid programs also cover a maximum of just 12 credits per semester. And few colleges and universities encourage students to exceed that number. Many charge them extra if they do.

“There’s almost an on-time penalty,” said Johnson. “It’s dumbfounding.”

Spending extra time in college is also very, very expensive. Every additional year a bachelor’s-degree-seeking student spends in college costs an average of $68,153 in additional tuition, fees, and living expenses, plus forgone income, Complete College America estimates.

“For me, it’s a personal cost,” said Anderson, who is paying her own way through college. “I don’t want to put that burden on my parents.”

Angie Anderson, a double major and honors student at the University of Hawaii who works three jobs but is on schedule to graduate on time (Tina Mueller / The Hechinger Report)

Speeding students to the finish line is part of the idea behind an Obama administration proposal to award recipients of federal Pell Grants an additional “on-track bonus” of $300 for taking 15 credits per semester or more. The proposal is part of a $2 billion expansion of the grant program in the president’s newly released budget plan that, if passed, would take effect next year. The administration estimates that 2.3 million students would be eligible for the bonus program. A few state financial-aid programs have already added rewards of as much as $1,100 per year for students who take 15 credits or more per semester.

For now, however, most of them don’t. Only 29 percent of students at community colleges take 15 credits or more per semester, and about half at four-year institutions, according to Complete College America.

One result is that just 5 percent of community-college students graduate with two-year degrees in two years and about 36 percent of four-year private and flagship public university and college students with bachelor’s degrees graduate in four. At non-flagship four-year public universities, the on-time graduation rate is 19 percent.

“The culture of education is, 12 hours is full-time,” said Risa Dickson, the vice president for academic affairs in the University of Hawaii System. “But the math doesn’t add up.”

Students, despite being the ones most affected by this perplexing disconnect, often aren’t aware of it. About 86 percent of freshmen in an annual national survey conducted by a center at UCLA say they think they’ll graduate on time, when only about a third of that proportion ultimately do it.

A 2011 agreement between Obama and Congress to cut spending also blocked students from getting Pell Grants for courses in the summer, when they could add on additional credits. Restoring so-called summer Pell is another part of the president’s proposal for next year—and one of the few for which there appears to be bipartisan support. Republican Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has introduced a bill to do that, too. Some governors and legislators are also experimenting with state-level reform efforts to boost the on-time-graduation rate.

graduated in four years in 2000. Meanwhile, the proportion of working-age adults in the state who hold some sort of a postsecondary degree is 43 percent—slightly higher than the national average, but far behind the state’s goal of 55 percent by 2025. At the current rate of progress, the figure would be far from meeting that goal.

Jason Dela Cruz is majoring in molecular cell biology with a minor in Filipino language and expects to take longer than four years to finish. (Tina Mueller / The Hechinger Report)

When 15-to-Finish started in 2012, Hawaii’s four-year graduation rate was still well below the national average, at less than 20 percent. But by last year it was up to 28 percent, the university says—and the proportion of students completing at least 15 credits per semester in their freshman years has risen from 49 percent to 55 percent.

There still are many obstacles to speeding students up. Like Dela Cruz and Saviano, some have trouble scheduling classes when they need them. Hawaii and some other states and institutions are using new software to try to anticipate demand and avoid that problem, though they often need to overcome the resistance from faculty who don’t like changing their routines.

“The culture of higher education is that academics have managed the schedule,” said Dickson. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s time to revisit how that works for the students.”

a national survey of students at a few dozen colleges and universities, 20 percent said they were behind because they changed their majors, and 18 percent because they had to work while enrolled. “For many students, going to college is like running a race without a defined ending point,” said Dickson.

Universities also may be overly protective, said Cathy Buyarski, an associate dean for student affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, or IUPUI. “We had a very strong culture of, ‘We really want to support students and make sure they’re successful,’” Buyarski recalled. “Advisors were erring on the side of being very cautious, so when they met with a student, they would start at 12 credits. Their concern was, ‘Gosh, what if the student can’t handle 15 credits?’”

When IUPUI adopted Hawaii’s 15-to-Finish model, in 2012, however, the proportion of students who successfully completed 15 credits per semester shot from 28 percent to 64 percent, Buyarski said. “Now we’re starting with the assumption that they’re great students and they can do this, which to me is what educators should be doing,” she said. “If you set the bar high, they will achieve.”

That’s what’s happened in Hawaii, too, where students who take 15 credits per semester get better grades and are less likely to drop out than those who take 12, regardless of their level of preparation based on high school rank, SAT scores, and other measures. “I think what happens is it forces you to focus and manage your time better,” Dickson said. “When somebody decides they want to get done in four years, they’re going to prioritize that.”

Megan Tabata, a marketing major who is part of the 15-to-Finish program meant to help her graduate on time. (Tina Mueller / The Hechinger Report)

Universities and colleges in 22 states are now trying some variation of the 15-to-Finish idea, including Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia. Kentucky and Nevada have launched marketing campaigns explaining the idea to students; Hawaii promotes 15-to-Finish—a name now in the process of being trademarked— in TV commercials and other ads.

“The first part is telling students what they need to know,” said Johnson of Complete College America. “We recognize that not every student can take 15 credits, but we do think there’s utility in telling students what happens if you choose not to.”

South Dakota, the Montana University System, and several institutions in Georgia and Indiana have changed their tuition policies so 15 credits per semester—and, in some cases, up to 18—costs the same as 12; Indiana University will do that starting in the fall, joining Purdue, Ball State, and Indiana State. To encourage students to catch up in the summers, IUPUI gives Indiana residents a 25 percent discount on summer courses. The University of Hawaii offers free textbooks to students in random drawings open only to students in the 15-to-Finish program.

South Dakota also has added a scholarship for students who complete 30 credits per academic year. Under its Fly in 4 campaign, Temple University pays students up to $2,000 if they agree to work no more than 15 hours a week and pledge to follow a series of directions meant to help them finish in four years; if they still can’t, the university promises to cover the cost of the additional time they need. And a program in Texas called B-on-Time offers complete forgiveness of loans issued by the state to undergraduates who complete their bachelor’s degrees in four years with at least a B average—though that program is being phased out because fewer students used it than projected.

Not everyone benefits equally from this push. IUPUI has found the students who take at least 15 credits per semester tend to be wealthier, have fewer outside commitments, and are more academically prepared than those who take 12, and are more likely to be female and live on campus.

Some critics of the emphasis on speed also contend that college is a time when students should be able to find themselves, which may mean slowing down.

Dickson agreed—to a point. “That’s what college is about,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that students should be doing it for six or seven years.”

As for Anderson, she said she may take a year off after college “after pushing myself for four” and relax a bit before going on to law school. “There’s this misconception that everything’s a race,” she said, headed off to her next class. “It’s not.”


This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Pitching in to Save a Library

Jim and I spent a lot of time in San Bernardino, California last winter.  We were based in next-door Redlands, Jim’s hometown, to report on towns in the  West and Southwest for our American Futures project.

When we returned to Southern California a few weeks ago for a Conference of town mayors at the University of Redlands, we retraced our familiar paths in San Bernardino. We were drawn to see the town again after the terrible shootings that happened there in December.

San Bernardino is a famously challenged town—bankrupt, historically corrupt, and troubled, as Jim has reported here and here. But even in San Bernardino we easily found healthy and promising signs of people who were laying down pathways for a way up for the city, its  educators, schools, entrepreneurs, and young people.

View of the San Bernardino mountains from the library.                       Facebook page of SBPL Friends

Of course the town looked the same after “December second,” a term that has become the linguistic handle in the region for discussing the tragedy, the same way “September eleventh” or “nine-eleven” has become a handle across the U.S. for that infamous date. When I asked people what felt different in the city, some of the language was new. They used phrases like “a show of resiliency,”  “a commitment to try to do better,” and “to believe in the city.”

I also visited the Norman F. Feldheym Central Library in downtown San Bernardino. I have found during our travels that libraries, as public institutions that serve the people, always offer a sense of the needs and wants of a town.

***

The Central Library, as it is often called, is in downtown San Bernardino. It is surrounded by park-like grounds, but signs remind you that there is no loitering allowed. Despite that, at least one homeless man made himself comfortable lying amid his bags. He was harmless and not exactly loitering, and there were certainly bigger problems for the police in San Bernardino than to chase him away.

City seal   Wikimedia Commons

When I walked inside, the security guard spotted me immediately; he was clearly waiting for me, in my journalist role, to send me along to the staff. When I asked to stop by the restroom, he grabbed his keys and guided me to the staff restroom, saying thoughtfully that it would be much nicer than the public one.

Like all of San Bernardino, the public library was hit hard during recession of 2008. Before 2008, Ed Erjavek, the library director told me, the budget, which is allocated by the city of San Bernardino, was $3.5 million, and it supported a full-time staff of 31. Today, the budget is $1.5 million, and it supports a staff of 10. One result is that the library open hours have fallen from 54 hours a week to 37 in the central library, and even lower to 20 hours in the branch libraries.

The library copes by grabbing a strong lifeline braided together by generous funders, creative grant-seeking, and an army of dedicated volunteers.

Music class in the library’s children’s room                                                    Facebook of SBPL Friends

The Library Foundation, an independent fundraising group founded in 1995, has been a staunch and strong driver shoring up the basic staff-and-operations budget from the city to move the library forward. They dedicated $306,000 to replace their 15-year-old computer hardware and software, a one-time gift  that Erjavek pronounced was “beyond my wildest dreams.” The Foundation also donates funds for actual books, e-books, and audio books, and many other projects.

And the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians,  located in adjacent Highland, California, where it also runs a casino, has donated funds for books.

As in many libraries, the volunteer Friends of the Library are the grass roots supporters who know their libraries inside and out. In San Bernardino last year, the Friends provided $20,000 for books and more than twice that for projects.

A collaborative mural featuring world-renowned local artist Phillip Yeh          Facebook of SBPL Friends                                                                                                                                                                              

Linda Adams Yeh, the effervescent staffer who manages the programming for the library and the young adults, and coordinates the multitude of volunteers, led me around the children’s room, a recipient of Friends’ funds. The children’s area is often the most welcoming room in libraries; San Bernardino’s is bright with hand-painted murals, craft work, and a new set of fish tanks. The room and activities are a draw for the children, as well as a gateway to attract parents into the library.

Erjavek, the library director, toured me around the rest of the library. At the big tables just inside the main reading rooms sat a group of disabled adults. They come regularly to enjoy their time in the library, Erjavek described, and to also volunteer to clean the books, especially the children’s books, which are quickly soiled and smudged from little fingers. I admit I had never thought about that before.  

New aquarium in the library’s children’s room                                                   Facebook of SBPL Friends

Volunteers were everywhere. One was a greeter in the main reading room. Another was upstairs staffing the California Room with its archives of local and California history, where a reporter and a professor were working. She told me that lots of people come in to use the genealogy records, which are particularly rich in holdings from the mid-19th century Mormon settlers.

Upstairs, two levels of  ESL classes, one for beginners and one for intermediates, were being taught  by staff from the Jack L. Hill Lifelong Learning Center. The 20-some students were all ages of Hispanics and, more recently, Asians. More help comes in the form of  homework services, literacy, preschool activities, and computer and citizenship classes. All for free. “This is a goldmine,” said Yeh of the library and all the services it helps to offer the community.

From an event in the library’s auditorium                               Facebook SBPL Friends

Sometimes, unexpected help arrives through unfortunate circumstances. The 200-person auditorium had a nice new carpet, made possible from an insurance settlement from a recent indoor flood. Also, after the December second shootings, the library received a $15,000 grant for library books from the California State Library to support the library’s role as a community anchor in times of crisis. The library also received generous funding for internet, phone, hardware, and a new wifi network under a federal program that helps communities based on the percentage of their K — 12 students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, the proxy for poverty.

I asked Erjavek if he compared notes about their challenges with librarians from other communities at meetings or gatherings. Yes, he told me, and a few were also extremely challenged, but “this is the toughest.” So many times during our conversation, Erjavek repeated a phrase like “We are so grateful for the support we get.” Or “We appreciate the support.” Or “We are grateful for what we have.” Indeed, most of the libraries I have visited have worked on creative fundraising of various sorts. But from what I’ve seen, I would have to agree with Erjavek about San Bernardino that this place is the toughest.

On my way out, I stopped to use the public restroom, since I was curious after being steered away from it when I arrived. It was fine. But I also encountered one of those surprisingly disorienting moments – like when flight attendants hesitate, and pause to remember the name of the city where they’re landing, or when political candidates trip or stumble on the name of the city where they’re delivering the stump speech.

Inside the restroom, I heard someone’s cellphone ring– that loud, monotone, old fashioned BRRRRING BRRRRING .  A woman’s voice shouted WEI, the unmistakable Chinese telephone greeting that I heard 10,000 times in public places when we were living in China.  For a moment, I was not in downtown San Bernardino, but back in Beijing. She went on to chatter in identifiably unpolished, countryside Mandarin, and when I saw the woman drying her hands, she looked just as she sounded.  In the second instant, of course I realized that I was in an American city populated by all kinds of people, and that the public library is an American institution that is truly “Open to All,” as the promise engraved above the main door of the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Ohio reads.

The Promise of Integrated Schools

Charlotte, North Carolina, became a national model for school desegregation in the 1970s, busing students to balance the racial composition of its schools. Decades later, Charlotte is a city where no racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority of residents—whites (45 percent), blacks (35 percent), and Latinos (13 percent) top the city’s multicultural mix. And within this diverse and fast-growing urban metropolis, the city’s students are once again segregated by race and class, with levels reminiscent of the pre-1970s era.

It’s not uncommon to find public schools across the country with students isolated by race and income. As headlines chronicle the problem, the debate continues—from the court of public opinion to state courts—over how to integrate schools. Two recent reports offer the latest research to point to hopeful trends as more school districts pursue integration—with promising benefits shown for students of color and their white peers in racially diverse classrooms. Yet the research does not reveal how to bridge the gap between belief and action. Policymakers and parents who both support integration, and are universally willing to expend political and social capital to bring about racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. Instead, efforts to make that a reality have ultimately lagged.

The first of two companion reports issued by The Century Foundation, a progressive policy and research think tank, tracks the growth of socioeconomic integration in education over the last 20 years. In 1996, the group identified just two school districts nationwide that used socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment policies. By 2007, the number of districts with socioeconomic-integration polices had increased twentyfold, with roughly 40 using this strategy. Today, 91 school jurisdictions deliberately blend affluent and less-advantaged children, totaling over 4 million students, about 8 percent of K-12 public-school enrollment. For contrast, there are more than 15,000 school districts in the U.S., some 50 million students in K-12 schools, and 92 percent of students remain in racially and socioeconomically homogenous schools. Still, researchers say the raw numbers—comprising traditional public schools and charter schools—indicate a dramatic shift.

“The real story here is about the momentum,” said Kimberly Quick, the co-author of the school integration study and a policy associate at the foundation. “The districts and charter networks identified intentionally, and in most cases voluntarily, chose to integrate their schools during an era in which integration was under-discussed and under-supported.” Noting that both Acting Secretary of Education John King and the White House have recently made school integration a priority, Quick anticipates such programs will grow at an even faster pace in the future. “These 91 districts and charters represent a small slice [but] can serve as models for new programs across the country.”

The new research builds on established findings dating back 50 years, and confirms the wide-ranging benefits for students in racially and socioeconomically integrated schools, including stronger test scores, increased college attendance, and improved critical-thinking skills. Research on diverse educational settings suggests that the gains associated with desegregation stem from having more middle-class students in a school, not from the racial diversity per se, according to Halley Potter, a Century Foundation fellow and Quick’s co-author. Yet “long histories of legal discrimination targeted at communities of color have severely racialized class,” she said, with middle-class schools more likely to have strong teachers, parent support, and a core group of high-achieving peers.

“If you successfully bring these resources to high-poverty schools, it is possible to produce strong results for kids—and we know examples of excellent high-poverty schools that are doing that,” Potter said. “But these successful high-poverty schools are sadly still the outliers,” she stated, stressing that the majority of education reform strategies “focus on this long shot … rather than pursuing integration to break up the concentrations of poverty that we know are so harmful for kids.”

The most common method listed by districts to achieve this integration was redrawing neighborhood school boundaries, a controversial approach that is often accompanied by public outcry. But the researchers, while conceding the politically contentious nature of school-boundary decisions, admittedly offer scarce guidance to help school leaders that are considering changing attendance zones. Much of the pushback, like school segregation, cuts along racial and class lines. One illustration of the inherent challenges is seen in New York City, where parents on the Upper West Side and in the neighboring borough of Brooklyn opposed recent school boundary changes that would bring racial and socioeconomic integration.

The resistance in the nation’s largest school system, however, is not representative of white parents overall, said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, whose new report on integration expands on the importance of racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse schools and classrooms.

School Integration’s Comeback


Wells argues that the time is ripe for political leaders to listen to the growing demand for more diverse public schools. The issue deserves greater emphasis and attention with students of color now a majority of the public school population and whites gentrifying urban neighborhoods of color, she says. “We have tons of data … that shows that white parents increasingly want their kids to go to diverse schools,” Wells said. “If you ask, ‘Do parents want diverse schools?’ whites are saying yes.”

In her report, Wells cites a 2003 survey administered by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that found 60 percent of white Americans thought racially integrated schools were better for kids, and a 2004 survey conducted by Newsweek that showed whites increasingly linked public school improvement to diverse student bodies.

More recent polling, though, finds most Americans prefer local schools over school diversity. A January HuffPost/YouGov poll found that many Americans agree that racially diverse schools are better for students but “a solid majority said it is more important ‘to have students go to local community schools even if it means most students are of the same race.’” Less than one in five (18 percent) opted to send their kids to racially diverse schools knowing it would mean “many of the students don’t live nearby.”

For those families that prioritize diverse educational experiences, the study shows racially integrated schools improve education for students of all races and accomplish one immeasurable advantage: helping youth challenge stereotypes and their implicit biases toward people of different races and ethnicities. But fully realizing this goal requires teachers who are trained in facilitating courageous conversations about race, said Wells, and skilled in racially and culturally relevant teaching practices.

“Research emphasizes how students learn from each other, but there are different things that teachers can do to foster that learning,” Wells said. “We wrote the report to help people see the need for more research on teaching in more diverse classrooms. [We] need to do more work to help educators cultivate those benefits.”

Why Elite-College Admissions Need an Overhaul

March madness is almost here. No, I’m not referring to the college-basketball playoffs; I’m alluding to the anxious waiting of young people and their families of word about their fate from the highly selective colleges of America. And I’m talking as well about those who are about to venture forth on the ritualistic campus tours to determine where they will apply next fall. What few of these families realize is how broken the admission system is at these selective colleges.

At these institutions of higher learning, the goal is to “shape a class,” which involves trying to admit qualified and diverse students who will learn from each other as well as from their experiences in the classroom. These are the students who have the greatest potential to use their education in productive ways and to contribute to their own well-being and to the needs of the larger society. Diversity is not defined here as solely pertaining to race, ethnicity, or gender, although that weighs on decisions, but also on a range of interests and talents that students can develop and share with others during their college years. These are high-minded goals.

Undergraduate admissions decisions rest in the hands of a staff of well-trained and highly motivated young people: the often-dreaded admissions officers. They travel around the country touting the virtues of their school, train students to give campus tours, and provide professional videos of what life is like at their institution. A director of admissions, usually significantly older and more experienced, oversees their work. Faculty members, however, rarely have any input in these undergraduate admissions decisions. In fact, at most elite colleges and universities, the faculty have almost nothing to say about admissions policies or what criteria should be emphasized in admitting students. Even at the Ivy League schools, there is rarely a discussion with the faculty about how the admissions office defines a “success” or a “failure” in a past admissions decision.

Despite their considerable abilities, many admissions officers are arguably not as talented or as interesting as the thousands of students who are applying to these schools—lots of whom will be rejected. The smartest, most imaginative, and most creative administrators are seldom located in the office of admissions, despite the office’s dedication and determination to admit the most qualified students.

empirical study conducted in 1996 by Patricia Conley, a political scientist at Northwestern University, of 300 admissions applications at a highly selective college demonstrated that although admissions officers talk about having a good deal of discretion in making decisions that circumvent customary attributes, College Board scores, GPA, race, gender, ethnicity, legacies—the standard factors that can be easily examined in an application—are by far the most significant determinants of the admissions decision.

If you are not a kid who has gone down the straight-and-narrow path for your entire high-school career, doing exceptionally well in everything and racking up impressive scores, you are rarely advised to apply to one of these highly selective colleges—unless you fall into some category (e.g., a star athlete) where it is well-known that lower standards are typically applied in terms of many academic credentials.

Within the group of high achievers whose SATs and GPAs are already off the charts, youngsters are often pushed by their parents and secondary-school teachers to differentiate themselves from the thousands of others by doing something special in extracurricular activities. So they may, say, enroll in a volunteer program, not necessarily because of true passion but for the record.

Toward a More Perfect University.

Training Future ‘Lady Bosses’

RENO, Nev.—As this city grows its fledgling tech and business sectors, some residents want to make sure women hold leadership roles from the beginning. In the United States, women are severely underrepresented in both areas. An analysis last year found that just 15 percent of U.S.-based startups that received funding between 2009 and 2014 have a female founder. Only around 13 percent of Twitter’s tech employees are women, a percentage in line with those at other companies, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. While Silicon Valley struggles to address the disparity, a group of women in Reno wants to prevent it from growing in their city by inspiring girls to start businesses and pursue leadership roles.

On a recent Saturday morning, about 45 girls and young women, ages 7 to 23, filed into a local art venue to attend Girl Empire. They were there to learn how to pitch ideas to investors and take the lead in solving community problems—two crucial skills for entrepreneurs, but not necessarily ones taught in school.

For Lauren Klein, the CEO of Girlmade and the organizer of the event, helping women start businesses is personal. Her teenaged daughter expressed an interest in being an entrepreneur, but Klein had to supplement her daughter’s school work with lessons on how to start and run a business. Klein, who devised growth and marketing strategies for Silicon Valley companies, realized not all parents have the time or ability to do what she did. “This market is ripe for this,” she says. “Eventually, we could be the Girls Who Code of entrepreneurship,” she adds, referring to the nonprofit that focuses on getting more girls into tech.  

After initial introductions, participants divide into teams led by local business owners, all of them women, to brainstorm solutions to problems they see in their community. Later, they pitch them and receive feedback. In the beginning, there are wide stares and mumbled ideas. The lack of directions and the freedom to make choices seem foreign to some. “You can make the rules,” Klein encourages them. “You can be a lady boss.”

Several of the teams decide they want to tackle women’s inequality, a nebulous phrase they eventually realize they need to define as they brainstorm solutions.  “Maybe it can start with women getting paid more,” offers 11-year-old Leilani Carlos. “I don’t get why we’re not, because we’re more qualified,” says Mandisa Bailey, 13, correctly noting that more women than men earn bachelor’s degrees.

One team agrees it’s unfair that a member isn’t allowed to play lacrosse with boys after eighth grade and builds a case for inclusion. Another calls out a store that only sells superhero shirts in the “boys” section of the store, and decides they could launch a campaign to get the shop to add superhero shirts to the “girls” section, or start their own shirt company. “Sexist is reckless! Sexist is reckless!” they chant.

Will any of the girls end up as startup founders? Not necessarily, but the idea is to get them thinking like entrepreneurs and innovators, so they’ll be armed with the confidence and mindset to launch something of their own.

“I think it gives them confidence when they see women doing things and realize they can do it, too,” says Kelly Northridge, who co-founded a tech company that helps users navigate the healthcare industry. “Things are changing here,” she continues, but notes that few of the girls she interacts with are receiving the type of mentoring in school that would encourage them to start companies.

“In an emerging city like Reno, we’ve got all kinds of talent and creativity and entrepreneurial spirit,” says Tracy Benelli, a volunteer mentor, who has worked at senior levels at Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Benelli moved to Reno two years ago by choice, she says, and has found that women here are very supportive of each other. She decided to volunteer at the event, she says, to inspire younger girls to take on leadership roles.”It’s about building the scaffolding,” she says.

Girlmade is a small operation for now, but Klein, who also runs a breakfast club for local businesswomen, says she has fielded requests to take the operation on the road. Eventually, she’d like to lead workshops across the United States and offer programs in multiple languages. For now, as more tech companies move their operations to Reno and the city’s own startup incubator gives rise to new ventures, Klein is all about empowering girls in this city to not only be a part of the changes, but to play a leading role in what it looks like in the future.

Educating an Original Thinker

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, the writer, Wharton professor, and erstwhile magician Adam Grant explores the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers. Through stories of business “originals” such as the Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, and the Warby Parker co-founder Neil Blumenthal, he explains how unorthodox thinking can result in unprecedented success or—if shaped by groupthink or myopic vision—miserable failure.

Grant is a gifted educator himself, and, as Wharton’s top rated teacher for the past four years, knows a little something about identifying and cultivating original thinking in his students. I asked Grant about the role teachers play in educating original children, and how teachers and parents alike can protect what’s special in these original children—traits that have the potential to disrupt lesson plans today, but, if nurtured and protected, may just change the world tomorrow. Below is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.


Jessica Lahey: There’s a tension in education right now as educators reluctantly part ways with our old reliable teaching methods—an orderly, silent classroom with students organized alphabetically in rows and a teacher lecturing from behind a desk—and begin to accept novel, research-based approaches to learning, such as student-led inquiry; small group, peer-to peer teaching; and problem-based learning. You seem to indicate that for truly original thinkers, order, structure, and discipline might be antithetical to learning. How can teachers balance a need for a structured learning environment while allowing for original thinkers to thrive?

so can too little. In a classroom with extensive constraints, kids don’t learn to think for themselves. Yet you can have too much of a good thing: In psychology, we often find that good things satiate and bad things escalate. Give kids all the freedom in the world, and they can get caught in choice paralysis, lack frameworks for figuring out how to approach a problem, or develop plenty of novel ideas but fail to implement them. I think balance comes in alternating different pedagogical approaches. Lecture for 10 minutes, then let kids develop their own way of teaching the lesson learned and present it in small groups. Research on the Jigsaw Classroom shows that this can reduce stereotypes and prejudice—and it’s a great way to nurture creative thinking as well. Plus, one of the reasons that firstborns often have an intelligence advantage over later siblings is a teacher effect: They spend more time teaching, which helps them crystallize their own learning. Why not make students teaching each other a norm in the classroom?

Lahey: In the chapter of Originals titled “Rebel with a Cause,” you claim that rebelliousness is a positive trait when it comes to educating kids who will truly go on to change the world. What can teachers do to encourage rebellion that leads to original, creative thinking?

Grant: Offer students the chance to reinterpret something they’ve learned. This is obviously easier to do in some subject areas than others—it works especially well in domains where there are often competing theories, like history and literature. After presenting some of Benjamin Franklin’s great achievements as an inventor, social innovator, and politician, give kids the opportunity to investigate his failures: Why was he late to the revolution? Once students learn about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s leadership of the women’s suffrage movement, ask them to reanalyze it from Lucy Stone’s perspective: Was she the most important pioneer, and did Stanton and Anthony write her out of the story?

Lahey: Rebels without direction are a teacher’s worst nightmare and given enough power, can derail just about any lesson plan. What’s the best way to give classroom rebels a positive outlet for their rebellion without stifling it?

Grant: Give them something to stand for, not just against. Ask them what they think is wrong with the classroom—and then challenge them to make it better.

Lahey: Teachers are in a unique position to serve as mentors for kids who may not thrive in classroom environments that are often geared toward obedience, teacher-pleasing, and the “because I said so” school of reasoning. What would the ideal teacher mentor for an original kid look like?

Grant: A teacher who provides kids with a great deal of responsibility. That means having high expectations, but granting them the discretion to choose how they will meet the expectations. And it doesn’t hurt to have a little distaste for authority and rules yourself.

Right Question Institute and help students learn to formulate great questions. As Warren Berger says, “Knowing the answers will help you in school, but knowing how to question will help you in life.”

Lahey: One story I hear a lot from the original thinkers I know is that they got in trouble a lot in school for opting out of (i.e., refusing) to follow a directed path or the instructions of the teacher. The classic story is they did not do well in math because they wanted to figure out all the alternate ways to work out that math problem rather than stick with the formulaic instructions handed down by the teacher. How do we support original thinkers in their enthusiasm to learn and explore and innovate while making sure we teach them what we need them to know in order to move on from one lesson to another?

Grant: One option is to give students the freedom to explore new solutions once they’ve demonstrated understanding of existing ones. Borrowing Dan Pink’s language from Drive, autonomy becomes a reward for mastery.

Lahey: I worry about the mental health of original kids as they struggle to make their way through a world that often wants them to shut up, sit down, and conform to the status quo. Could you comment on this?

Grant: I worry about it, too. School should be a place where kids learn to love learning, not where they get stifled by drill sergeants. The psychologists Erik Westby and V.L. Dawson found that teachers claimed to enjoy working with creative children, yet the most non-conforming children are the least likely to be the teacher’s pets. They raised two possibilities for how original kids will respond. One is that “teachers’ unwelcoming attitudes may alienate children from formal education.” The other is that “teachers’ dislike of behaviors associated with creativity leads to the extinction of those behaviors.” Either outcome is highly undesirable.

Lahey: How can parents of original thinkers protect what’s special and different about their children even as those children are being told every day at school to stop doodling, stay inside the lines, do it the way I told you to do it, and stop asking why?

Grant: Show them that some of the great original thinkers in history were very similar to them. Look at Einstein: He consistently rebelled against authority and struggled in classes where he was pushed to follow the crowd. Fiction works here too: Remind them that Harry Potter and Hermione Granger have to bend the rules to fight against the dark arts.

Lahey: So, what’s the first step? If we want to change our parenting and teaching today and encourage our children to become originals, where should we begin?

Grant: Focus on values over rules. The parents of highly creative architects, for example, modeled and emphasized core values, and gave their kids freedom to figure out how they wanted to express those values. The parents might say, “Respect for others is important in this family. What kind of impact do you want to have on others?” or, “We take joy in our work. What kinds of jobs sound like fun to you?” When the kids grew up, they were more comfortable going against the grain, because they had taken ownership over their own system of values that guided them. It would be wonderful to see more teachers adopt a similar approach.

The Re-Politicization of America’s Colleges

A movement may be emerging on college campuses. Though it may seem like the well-publicized string of protests slowed at the turn of the spring semester, a new survey of college freshman indicates that these students are more interested in political engagement and activism than they have been in years.

Campus Politics: A Cheat Sheet


The annual American Freshman Survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, polled 141,189 full-time students at nearly 200 colleges. Students across the country have been protesting racial injustice in their communities and responding to national conversations after high-profile shootings in places like Ferguson, New York City, and Baltimore, as well as highlighting problems such as campus sexual assault and college affordability. “Perhaps connected to the increased activism among college and high school students over the past year, first-time, full-time college students in 2015 report substantially greater likelihoods of participating in student protests and demonstrations while in college compared to their peers who entered last year,” the study says.

The percent of students who said they had a “very good chance” of participating in protests increased 2.9 percentage points—from 5.6 to nearly 9 percent—since last year’s survey, making this class the most ambitious about campus demonstrations in the survey’s 50-year history. “Many of these students, if not nearly all of them, were seniors in high school last spring when demonstrations against hostile campus climates and sexual assault were occurring,” Kevin Eagan, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles, told Inside Higher Ed.



The survey was administered between March and October 2015 (before many of the most highly covered protests). And although the survey didn’t explicitly ask about any specific events or protests, black students reported the greatest likelihood of participating in demonstrations (16 percent) and have experienced the largest increase (5.5 percent) in participation since last year—perhaps reflective of their involvement in protests at places like Yale, Princeton, and the University of Missouri over the racial climate on their campuses. One in 10 Latino students also said they would  participate, compared to about 7 percent of their white peers.  



This freshman class also demonstrated other shifts in the way they feel about their role in the political process. Forty percent of freshmen believe it is “essential” or “very important” to become community leaders, 60 percent expressed a commitment toward “improving their understanding of other countries and cultures,” and three-quarters indicated that “helping others in difficulty” is important. While students’ commitment to political engagement improved across the board, differences in responses among racial groups is noteworthy. Nearly two-thirds of black students, more than half of Latino students, and about 45 percent of Native American and Asian students rated this goal as “very important” or “essential,” versus just over a third of whites.


Increases in the Importance of Civic Engagement, 2011-2015

Higher Education Research Institute


According to the survey, student interest in civic engagement extends beyond their presence at physical protests and demonstrations. While the researchers can’t say for sure that students expectations for participating in protests is connected to their levels of political engagement or to the recent waves of activism, the racial divide persists when looking at how much of a priority students place on influencing the political structure. According to the survey, 18 percent of Asian American or Pacific Islander and 20 percent of white students felt that it was  a “very important” or “essential” objective. Conversely, more than a quarter (about 27 percent) of Latino students and almost a third of black students said so; these two groups have been the most vocal about discrimination on college campuses.



Issues that are important to college students—college affordability, race and racial bias, immigration, gun violence—have gotten a lot of attention during the current 2016 presidential election cycle. Bernie Sanders is campaigning to make college free.  On her website, Hillary Clinton promotes that she will “fight to bring an end to sexual assault on America’s campuses.” Ted Cruz discussed the problems with affirmative action with Buzzfeed last year. Political candidates have vied for the youth vote, and it has been widely reported that the youth turnout in the 2008 presidential elections was a major contributor to Barack Obama’s victory. There are still many months to go until the general election, but if this survey is any indication, college students—whose views, according to the survey, are increasingly aligning with progressive and liberal platforms—are slated to have a sizable impact on whom the country elects to office.

Are Black College Students Getting the Right Advice?

According to a new analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, black students are far less likely to pursue lucrative college majors than their white peers. Blacks make up 5 percent of computer-engineering majors (average salary $69,000), and 7 percent of finance (average salary $57,000) and marketing majors (average salary $48,000), but 10 percent of students who major in early-childhood education (salary $38,000) and 19 percent of social-work majors (average salary $41,000).

Choosing a major that could lead to financial stability “is especially important to a demographic group that historically has been deprived of opportunities and had fewer economic assets and resources,” notes the report, “making them especially vulnerable to the family stress created by economic ups and downs.”

Why are blacks so concentrated in majors that lead to low-paying jobs? Anthony Carnevale, the director of the center and the lead author of the report, says one factor is personal choice, and another is the fact that black students are concentrated in open-access schools that offer fewer majors and less advising than selective schools about which majors can lead to financially stable careers.

“There’s a huge inadequacy here in counseling,” he says. Right now, high-school counselors are focused on getting their students into college, while college counselors are focused more on getting students into the classes they need to complete their chosen major, and less on what that major should be. “The transition from declaring your major to getting a job is a wasteland,” he said, referring to the fact that few students have a clear idea of how or whether what they are studying in school will lead to a job after graduation.

Carnevale isn’t advocating anything as draconian as assigning people majors, but he does think that if a college freshman says she wants to major in psychology, a counselor needs to point out that she will likely also need a graduate degree to earn a good living. Right now, he says, that’s not happening at schools black students attend most. And while he thinks good counseling is lacking for most students, black and not, black students tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods where student-to-counselor ratios are lower than in upper-income areas. They are more likely to come from families unfamiliar with the college-application process and lucrative industries, such as computer science, which Carnevale suggests can drive these students toward lower-earning professions they are familiar with, such as teaching.

Black students are also less likely than their white peers to have access to private tutors who can offer guidance, or advanced-placement courses that give students a path to different career options.

Research suggests that what students study can matter more than where they go to school. But opening access to elite schools also matters. These schools tend to offer a broad array of majors and resources, along with strong advising, which Carnevale sees as the real “missing link in the American education reform dialogue. It’s kind of the rudder of the ship.” A separate report from the center found that the nation’s 468 most selective colleges spend between two and five times as much per student as the nation’s less selective schools. Some of that is on quality instruction, but elite schools also spend more on advising and career counseling.

The consequences of not equipping students with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions is high. Black students (along with women and Latinos) are most likely to rely on education as a path to financial well-being, Carnevale says, but no major comes with guaranteed earnings, so the risk of choosing a major that will not result in good wages is high, particularly for uninformed students.

All young people need access to better information, but getting good information to students is proving difficult. Part of the problem is that no history department wants to reveal that its graduates are working at coffee shops. Many schools opposed a proposal by the Obama administration to rate colleges based, in part, on how much debt students  graduate with and how much they earn. “There is no pressure on institutions to make less financially secure majors more secure” right now, Carnevale points out. Employers in some cities, such as Houston, are pushing local colleges to make adjustments in the courses they offer to keep up with local workforce needs. But in general, most schools don’t seem to be providing their students with the advice they need.


The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce receives support from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a sponsor of Next America.​

School Integration’s Comeback

For decades, researchers have found that integrating schools by race and economic status is one of the most powerful levers available for improving opportunities for kids. And for decades, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have been terrified to take any action, as visions of white backlash to forced racial busing in the 1970s danced in their heads.

That political taboo now seems to have been broken. On Tuesday, the White House announced that the president’s budget includes a new $120 million “Stronger Together” grant program to support local efforts to integrate schools by income. The proposed program would set up a competition to reward school districts or groups of districts that voluntarily take efforts to break up school-poverty concentrations. This is important because low-income students, on average, perform far better in middle-class schools than in schools where most of their classmates are poor.

In one fell swoop, the proposed program would more than double federal funding of efforts to encourage school integration. In the past, federal support for integration has consisted of a single, $100 million program for magnet schools that attract students of different backgrounds through special themes or teaching approaches.

Critics may try to demagogue the new socioeconomic-integration proposal as a return of “forced busing,” but the administration seems to be banking on the idea that new programs—which emphasize choice over compulsion and socioeconomic status over race—may have more political viability today than forced busing for racial desegregation did in the 1970s. Two new papers published by The Century Foundation should give the administration reason for confidence.

First, as my colleagues Halley Potter, Kimberly Quick, and Elizabeth Davies note in “A New Wave of School Integration,” while old efforts to integrate explicitly by race have fallen out of favor, the number of school districts that take socioeconomic status into account as a factor in school assignment has doubled since 2007. Today 91 school districts and charter-school chains explicitly consider socioeconomic status of students (usually eligibility for subsidized lunches) in school-assignment plans. These districts educate 4 million students, or roughly 8 percent of students nationally. By contrast, in 1996, when I started researching socioeconomic integration for The Century Foundation, only two programs existed, educating about 30,000 students.

Socioeconomic-integration programs often have the effect of producing racial integration, which is a critical educational goal. But they offer a number of advantages over older race-based programs. The first is constitutional. While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial-integration plans in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle in 2007 for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, using socioeconomic indicators as a basis for integration is perfectly legal.

There are also political advantages to programs that lift up economically disadvantaged students of all races—low-income black and Latino students, but also working-class white students, whose families often feel left out of race-specific remedies to educational inequality. Louisville’s old race-based program, for example, resulted in one elementary school that was half black and half white, but virtually all the students were poor, and the school struggled academically. Socioeconomic-integration plans are the types of programs that could align the interests of working-class whites and blacks as they fight for the opportunity to attend good, middle-class schools.

And, as a second Century Foundation report by Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo of Columbia’s Teachers College notes, many integration programs today rely on voluntary choice, not compulsory busing. In the Hartford, Connecticut, region, for example, more than 40 inter-district magnet schools have been created to serve 16,000 students through choice. No one is forced to go to a school they don’t wish to attend.

Saving School Choice Without Undermining Poor Communities


Indeed, the kind of programs included in the president’s socioeconomic-integration proposal are already in existence across the country, in both blue and red states. Programs have been started in stereotypically liberal jurisdictions such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Berkeley, California. But they can also be found in Beaumont, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; Rock Hill, South Carolina; Salina, Kansas; and Troup County, Georgia.

Local officials in these states have turned to socioeconomic integration because it is extremely difficult to “fix” high-poverty schools at scale. Instead, they asked, why not give more low-income students a chance to attend quality, middle-class schools where classmates are academically engaged, parents have the time to volunteer in class, and strong teachers with high expectations are mostly likely to be found?

A 2010 study by Heather Schwartz of the RAND Corporation found that students from low-income families who were randomly assigned to public housing (and neighborhood schools) did far better academically when they attended middle-class schools than higher-poverty schools—even though the latter schools spent $2,000 more per pupil. The positive outcomes and cost savings associated with socioeconomic integration ought to have appeal among liberals and conservatives alike. Indeed, such disparate voices as the education historian Diane Ravitch and former D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee have backed new efforts to integrate schools.

What’s really likely to propel integration programs politically, however, is not the benefits to low-income students but the emerging evidence on the benefits of integration to middle-class and white students. The Century Foundation report by Wells, Fox, and Cordova-Cobo finds that “the benefits of K–12 school diversity indeed flow in all directions.” As higher-education leaders have long recognized, “diversity makes us smarter.” The authors write: “Researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem-solving.”

There’s growing consensus among young middle-class and white parents that their children will better learn how to navigate an increasingly diverse nation if they attend diverse schools. Ninety-six percent of major employers, the researchers note, say it is “important” that employees be “comfortable working with colleagues, customers and/or clients from diverse cultural backgrounds.” Meanwhile, Wells, Fox, and Cordova-Cobo cite one poll finding that 77 percent of Millennials expressed a preference for urban life, suggesting an embrace of diversity not evident among older generations of whites who decamped to homogenous suburbs.

Of course, critics may be slow on the uptake and fight integration like is was 1974. But even if President Obama’s socioeconomic-integration proposal goes down to defeat, something important will have happened. For the first time in decades, a United States president will have proposed taking a new and important step to integrate the nation’s public schools.

This is something that as recently as 2009, President Obama and his then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan were unwilling to do. Their signature Race to the Top initiative pushed charter schools and teacher pay-for-performance and the Common Core standards, not school integration. It is telling that in a recent interview, Duncan, when asked to cite his failures, included the absence of progress on school integration. “I would give myself a pretty low grade on that,” he said.

Duncan’s replacement, John B. King Jr., is making up for lost time. In an address on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, John King declared, “Research shows that one of the best things we can do for all children—black or white, rich or poor—is give them a chance to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools.” And now, the administration has proposed putting resources behind this idea. The old and outdated political consensus that integration is too hot to touch has given way to a recognition that growing economic and racial segregation of schools can no longer be ignored.