The Diversity Dividend in K-12 Schools, Part 1


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 Court made clear that we have a federal policy in favor of diverse schools.  The policy gains added significance against the backdrop of the national trend toward more segregated classrooms.  This first part of a 3-part post describes the dividends that benefit students who attend diverse K-12 schools.

Despite the Supreme Court’s pronouncement and the persuasive weight of the scholarship on which it is based, 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 non-quantifiable skills and aptitudes, but not for our schools in standardized test score averages.  The second part of this post explores 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 third part of this post. This type of measure should be incorporated into the state’s school report cards and other assessments of school quality.


Madison is the most diverse school district in Dane County and probably in Wisconsin, an assertion I explain in the third part of this post.  We have always believed that a diverse learning environment provides benefits for our students.  I have described our graduates as generally more culturally competent and socially adept, more sophisticated in their understanding of racial dynamics, more open to new experiences, and more capacious in their understandings of controversial issues as a result of Madison’s diverse classrooms and the interactions they engender.

But if someone asked me to prove it, I’d have a hard time.  Back in 2009, I put together a survey of recent Madison graduates to ask how they felt about the education they received.  Many students highlighted the benefits of their diverse classrooms.  This was by no means a scientific survey, but the responses were generally consistent with my impressions.  Still, that’s more anecdote than evidence.

Help has come from, of all places, the United States Supreme Court.  I recently came across “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students,”a February, 2016 study from the Century Foundation.  The study has much of value.  Particularly helpful was its insight that a treasure trove of data on the benefits of diversity can be found in the many amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Abigail Fisher, a white student denied admission to the University of Texas-Austin in 2008, sued the university, claiming that its admission policy had incorporated an unconstitutional preference for students of color.  The case made its way up to the Supreme Court, which issued opinions on two occasions.  In 2012, the Court sent the dispute back to the lower courts for additional analysis.  Last summer, the Court upheld the admission policy at issue.  It reaffirmed the benefits of diversity that it had identified in earlier cases like Regents of Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke and Grutter v. Bollinger.

More than 90 amicus briefs were filed with the Court in Fisher.  Most of them supported the university, and many of these described the benefits that all of a schools’ students derive from a diverse student body.  The amicus briefs frequently observed that their comments presupposed the presence of a critical mass of students of diverse backgrounds; one or two students of color in a class, or a handful in a school, were not enough to provide the benefits that a truly diverse range of perspectives could offer.

The amicus brief of the National School Boards Association, which, like a few other amici, expanded the discussion of diversity benefits to the K-12 level, included a useful taxonomy: “In sum, . . . the educational benefits of diversity in elementary and secondary schools stretch across many realms of student learning and development, including [1] academic achievement, [2] social and interpersonal skills, [3] workplace preparation, and [4] civic engagement.”

What follows is a summary of the Fisher amicus briefs, arranged in the same four categories, along with some survey responses from our students addressing academic achievement and social and interpersonal skills.

A.     Academic Achievement

The ways diversity enhances academic achievement evolves as students move through their K-12 years.

In the early school years, when the focus is on skill development, diverse classrooms primarily but not exclusively benefit students of color.  The National Education Association (NEA) amicus brief in Fisher describes how students of color do better in reading and math when they are in diverse classrooms (as opposed to classrooms primarily composed of students of color).  White students also benefit from the experience of diverse classrooms, which dispel the “otherness” of racial differences for younger learners.  The NEA summarizes:

A robust body of empirical research confirms that racially diverse schools and classrooms produce tangible and lasting improvements in academic achievement for minority students, while also benefitting nonminority students. Classroom contact among students of different races also reduces stereotypes and prejudice, and has been found to be more effective in promoting tolerance and cross-racial understanding than any other pedagogical method.

As students grow older and attention turns more to classroom discussion and interactions, the benefits of diversity emerge more clearly.  The amicus brief of the American Psychological Association states: “Research clearly demonstrates that exposure to diversity enhances critical thinking and problem-solving ability.”  The amicus brief submitted by Harvard explains why:  “Students who learn and actively participate in a diverse community must reevaluate received truths, test their own beliefs and biases, and learn to communicate compellingly across differences.”  An amicus brief from Brown and other universities adds that diversity “significantly improves the rigor and quality of students’ educational experiences by leading them to examine and confront themselves and their tenets from many different points of view.”

According to the American Psychological Association:  “Comparing homogeneous and heterogeneous discussion groups, one study showed that the presence of minority individuals stimulates an increase in the complexity with which students—especially members of the majority— approach a given issue.  Members of homogeneous groups in this study exhibited no such cognitive stimulation.”

The Supreme Court was more succinct in Grutter:  “’[C]lassroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting’ when the students have the greatest possible variety of backgrounds.”

Our graduates agree.   Their responses to my 2009 survey were not written in the formal language of Supreme Court briefs and some reflect a perspective of unacknowledged privilege.  But they made similar points about the benefits of attending diverse schools:

  • “I think that West offered much better education both socially and academically than the surrounding private and suburban schools. I met and debated with people whose perspectives I never would have heard at a private school and shaped my own views based on a much broader range of opinions.  I had more freedom to explore my own identity in a less homogeneous community.”
  • “It gave me an opportunity to participate in activities that I never would have gotten the opportunity to participate in otherwise. It gave me a little bit more perspective on the world, and also made me want to learn about other cultures.”
  • “Having interacted with more types of people [at Memorial], it broadened my view and allowed me to not jump to conclusions so quickly about people, and see the world through a more global perspective.”
  • “[It was] incredibly beneficial. . . . I am used to not agreeing or hearing opinions and perspectives different than my own.  This helped me learn to better articulate my own ideas and views.”    

B.  Social and Interpersonal Skills

Experience in diverse classrooms helps students develop cross-cultural competence, which the amicus brief of Social and Organizational Psychologists defines as “the ability to quickly understand and effectively navigate a culture different from one’s own.”

As explained in the amicus brief of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and other civil rights organizations:

Several research studies have confirmed that cross-racial interactions can increase an individual’s professional competence through fostering openness to opposing points of view, reducing prejudice, enhancing their social self-confidence, and improving their ability to negotiate controversial issues. As a student’s exposure to cross-racial and cultural exchange increases, the student demonstrates increases in cognitive development, self-confidence, understanding, and tolerance. In a survey of over 6,000 alumni of four major research institutions, researchers discovered that those who reported experiencing “substantial” levels of cross-racial interaction in college demonstrated significantly higher skill development in several areas, including the ability to form creative ideas and solutions compared to those who reported only having “some” or “little” cross-racial interaction.

A study cited in Harvard’s amicus brief found that students who reported exposure to diverse opinions, cultures and values developed skills to “work cooperatively with diverse people, discuss and negotiate controversial issues, and engage in perspective taking.”

The American Psychological Association amicus brief reinforced the point:

A critical mass of diverse student groups promotes “the attitudes, knowledge, and skills that prepare college students for meaningful participation in a pluralistic and diverse democracy.” This stems from the development of a student’s cultural competence and “pluralistic orientation: the ability to see multiple perspectives; the ability to work cooperatively with diverse people; the ability to discuss and negotiate controversial issues; openness to having one’s views challenged; and tolerance of others with different beliefs.”

Again, our graduates responding to my survey agree:

  • “West offers an intangible, racial and socioeconomic diversity in the student population, that cannot be overestimated and is not typically present in private or suburban schools. . . .  [T]he benefits in terms of student growth and tolerance are critically important and will not occur in a homogeneous student body.”
  • “I believe attending a high school as diverse as La Follette was extremely beneficial to me. I was exposed to a number of different cultures, both across economic classes and ethnicities.  Particularly learning from the Hmong students about how different their lives were helped me to understand just how different someone’s beliefs can be.”
  • “Growing up with friends of all backgrounds has made me far more tolerant of different opinions and beliefs, and much more comfortable in situations with diverse groups of people.”
  • “East was a pretty diverse school. . . . I think it helped me prepare for adapting quickly to any situation I would encounter in college, and gave me the social skills to fit in pretty much anywhere.       

          C.  Workplace Preparation

The enhanced understandings and aptitudes that students develop in diverse classrooms equip them with skills that are critical for today’s workplaces.  The amicus brief of Social and Organizational Psychologists explains:

As American companies have begun to seek out diversity for productivity and profitability, the ability to work within a diverse environment has become an increasingly important skill. Students who function within a complex diverse educational environment develop a deeper understanding of the social world, and develop the cultural-competence skills now necessary for professional success.

The point was underscored powerfully by the amicus brief submitted by nearly half the Fortune 100 companies.  The brief states:

[P]eople who have been educated in a diverse setting make valuable contributions to the workforce in several important ways. Such graduates have an increased ability to facilitate unique and creative approaches to problem-solving by integrating different perspectives and moving beyond linear, conventional thinking; they are better equipped to understand a wider variety of consumer needs, including needs specific to particular groups, and thus to develop products and services that appeal to a variety of consumers and to market those offerings in appealing ways; they are better able to work productively with business partners, employees, and clients in the United States and around the world; and they are likely to generate a more positive work environment by decreasing incidents of discrimination and stereotyping.

Amici’s interest in and need for diversity – and, by extension, the state’s interest in diversity in higher education – has become even more compelling as time has passed. American corporations must address the needs of an increasingly diverse U.S. population and a growing global market, and they need a workforce trained in a diverse environment in order to succeed in these arenas.

In Grutter, employers’ recognition of the benefits of diversity contributed to the Supreme Court’s finding that colleges are justified in taking diversity into account in admissions:  “These benefits are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”

 D.     Civic Engagement

Our goal in Madison is to prepare our students for community, as well as college and career.  Our diverse classrooms also help here.  As the Brown amicus brief puts it, “[D]iversity benefits society as well, for it fosters the development of citizens and leaders who are crea­tive, collaborative, and able to navigate deftly in dy­namic, diverse environments.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights amicus brief cites William Bowen and Derek Bok’s 1998 book The Shape of the River, which reports that on a survey of over 27,000 students, the extent of racial diversity and racial interaction among students turned out to be one of the three most influential factors associated with increased student acceptance of other cultures, participation in community service programs, and growth in other aspects of civic responsibility.

The tangible and significant payoffs for civic engagement that result from diverse classrooms are well summarized in the amicus brief of Social and Organizational Psychologists:

Studies measuring the effects of diversity on democracy outcomes show students in diverse learning environments have greater understanding that differences need not be divisive, are more skilled at perspective-taking, are able to perceive commonalities in values between their own and other groups, and show greater interest in politics, participation in campus politics, and commitment to civic participation after college. Further, these students more readily accept conflict as part of normal life. For example, “students who reported frequent contact with diverse peers displayed greater … self-confidence in cultural awareness, development of a pluralistic orientation, believe that conflict enhances democracy, and tend to vote in federal and state elections.”

*  * * *

Finally, the academic, skill-building, workplace preparation and civic engagement benefits that Madison students derive from our diverse classrooms are reflected in the amicus brief submitted by Teach For America, the Calhoun School in New York City and a group of other selective and expensive prep schools.  The prep schools recognize that exposing their students to genuinely diverse classrooms expands their understanding and hones their interpersonal skills in ways that make their graduates more attractive when they apply to highly selective colleges:

In their long histories of providing and fostering diverse K-12 learning environments, Teach For America, METCO, the Calhoun School, City and Country School and the individual educator amici have observed the benefits of diversity firsthand. They have watched time and time again how students from different backgrounds enhance each other’s academic, psychological and social development. Amici have sent their graduates off to college with not only competitive academic credentials, but also with valuable perspectives on American society and the barriers of race.

Madison students get the benefits of diverse classrooms free of charge – no need to pay the $48,990 tuition that the Calhoun School charges (for high school!).

The academic credentials of our high school graduates vary.  Indeed, we have a very pronounced and very troubling achievement gap that we are working hard to address.  But because of the rich diversity of Madison’s public schools — which will be quantified in part 3 of this post — our  graduates are collectively better prepared for college, career and community than any others in Dane County and probably in the state in terms of the interpersonal skills and expanded understandings that experiences in diverse classrooms nurture.



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