[Note: This post combines three previous blog posts.]
One thing I have learned during my nine years on the Madison School Board is that white families’ attitudes toward race strongly shape their orientations toward our public schools.
The promise of our public schools has always encompassed an egalitarian ideal that our communities would be strengthened as students from all walks of life learn with and from each other. In 1857, D.Y. Kilgore, the first superintendent of Madison schools, approvingly quoted a Massachusetts educator’s description of public schools as “common in the best sense of the word, common to all classes, nurseries for a truly republican feeling, public sanctuaries where the children of the commonwealth fraternally meet and where the spirit of caste and of party can find no admittance.”
Those words were written about a century before Brown v. Board of Education, at a time when the “public sanctuaries” Kilgore celebrated were not equally accessible to students of color. It has proven a tougher sell to promote and celebrate students of all races coming together for learning, in resistance to the social currents that tend to pull white families into their own enclaves and that have fed a national trend toward more segregated classrooms.
Advocates for public schools in diverse communities like Madison are called upon to make the case that white students benefit from attending school with students of color, just as students of color benefit from sharing classrooms with white students. Fortunately, this turns out to be true.
The point has won recognition at the college and university level, primarily as a result of legal battles over admission policies. Last summer, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the United States Supreme Court affirmed previous rulings and held that colleges have a compelling interest in promoting the racial diversity of their student bodies. The first part of this post draws from the many briefs submitted in the Fisher case to describe the dividends that students can also derive from attending diverse schools at the K-12 level.
Despite the Supreme Court’s endorsement of diversity in college classrooms, the Court has become hostile to race-conscious strategies to address school segregation at the K-12 level. This turnabout from the Court’s earlier support of desegregation efforts has contributed to the growing homogeneity of classrooms throughout the country, a development explored in the second part of this post.
Our state policymakers are indifferent to benefits of diversity in K-12 schools. What’s worse, the usual tools employed to assess the relative quality of K-12 schools in a predominantly white state like Wisconsin have the perverse effect of penalizing diversity.
This ill-serves our Madison public schools. In typical quality comparisons, our schools suffer in comparison to our Dane County neighbors because our classrooms display a level of racial diversity that pays dividends for our students in critical but less quantifiable skills and aptitudes, but not for our schools in standardized test score averages. The third part of this post examines these issues.
Our evaluations and assessment tools should be better aligned with our national priorities. There is a relatively simple way of measuring the degree of diversity in schools and school districts – a Diversity Index – that I describe and calculate for a number of Wisconsin school districts in the fourth part of this post. The post concludes with the recommendation that this type of measure be incorporated into the state’s school report cards and other assessments of school quality. Continue reading