An Interview with Michael J. Petrilli: The Diverse Schools Dilemma
1. Why did you write THE DIVERSE SCHOOLS DILEMMA: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools?
Three years ago, when I started working on the book, I was struggling with the “diverse schools dilemma” myself. My wife, my young son, and I lived in Takoma Park, Maryland—a wonderful, urbanized city adjacent to the District of Columbia with walkable neighborhoods, a great sense of community…and socioeconomically diverse schools with lackluster test scores. I wanted to understand the pros and cons of such schools, and I decided to share what I learned with others.
2. You show that as cities change, middle-class families are returning to culturally vibrant urban neighborhoods for the first time in decades and considering sending their children to the diverse local public schools. What are the upsides of socioeconomically mixed public schools for middle-class children?
First of all, they get to become friends with kids with diverse backgrounds and experiences, with enriches their lives and, some research shows, will make them more comfortable in a multicultural America in the future. To be sure, getting to know people from different cultures or income levels can be stressful, but some amount of stress can be good for kids as they learn and grow. Second, living in the city can be great for kids, with less driving, more friends nearby, lots of museums and other cultural venues in the area—and many urban schools come with this sort of diversity.
3.What are the risks of choosing a socioeconomically mixed public school?
I see two. First, it’s true that such schools are less safe than homogeneously affluent schools. Still, all public schools are dramatically safer for kids than the world around them. Second, there’s the risk that high-achieving students—including, in general, many affluent kids—won’t get the challenge they need in diverse schools that are focused on helping other kids reach basic standards.
4. Can diverse schools effectively serve children of different socioeconomic backgrounds and educational needs simultaneously? What are the challenges? How are some schools overcoming them?
Yes, but it’s hard. The biggest challenge is academic diversity. All public schools face this challenge to some degree: How do you serve students who enter school at vastly different points in terms of academic preparedness? But socioeconomically diverse schools tend to face a spectrum that’s even wider, with some kids (mostly affluent) many grade levels ahead and other kids (mostly poor) several grade levels behind. There are no easy solutions. You can group kids by achievement levels, but doing so results largely in classrooms segregated by race and class. But if you keep all kids together, the high achievers will tend to be bored and the low achievers will tend to be overwhelmed. The best approach is probably a compromise: grouping kids by achievement for part of the day (say, for math and reading) but not for the rest.
5. Is there enough challenge and stimulation in schools that also struggle to help poor and immigrant children reach basic standards?
Sometimes, but it’s especially hard if schools don’t group students by ability. Beware of talk of “differentiated instruction”—the idea that one teacher can simultaneously instruct kids of vastly different achievement levels at the same time. It’s incredibly hard to do and often results in high achievers not getting the challenge they need.
6. Why are so few diverse public schools educationally “progressive”? Is it possible to find public schools that are both socioeconomically diverse and educationally progressive?
There are very few diverse public schools that are also “progressive.” They do exist—see, for instance, D.C.’s Capital City Public Charter School. But most diverse schools, focused as they are on meeting the needs of typically low-achieving low-income kids, tend to use a fairly traditional, structured, disciplined approach—in other words, the kind of educational style that many upper-middle-class parents hate.
7. Almost sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, many poor and minority children still attend segregated schools. How crippling is such isolation? In particular, what’s the evidence that poor kids perform better in integrated schools?
It’s just as crippling as it was sixty years ago. Some recent research from Caroline Hoxby, Rick Hanushek, and others shows that racially isolated classrooms are really bad for minority kids, especially African-American males. No one knows why for sure, but “separate but equal” is still a major problem. That said, some of the schools garnering the best results for poor and minority kids are racially isolated, such as many “no excuses” charter schools. So it’s not impossible to make racially and socioeconomically isolated schools work, but we’d be better off if we didn’t have to.
8. You note that the rapid gentrification of many of our great cities is making school integration more feasible than it has been for decades. As neighborhoods grow more diverse, it’s easier for their local schools to become diverse. How can we take advantage of this unique opportunity? How can charter schools be used to achieve this goal?
Public policy has to help, because schools that today are nicely integrated could “flip” to becoming overwhelmingly white and upper-middle-class in just a matter of years, especially if their surrounding neighborhoods flip. There are a few options. First, cities could create “controlled-choice” programs, whereby parents choose from among several options and a computer considers parental preferences and school demographics to create matches. But this means that no one has the “right” to attend the school down the street. Another option is to draw school boundaries in a way that takes demographics into account. And a third way is to create magnet or charter schools that are designed to draw a diverse set of students.
9. In the book, you also share your personal struggle with the “Diverse Schools Dilemma.” What did you decide when it came to your own children? Why?
In the end, we decided to leave Takoma Park and move to a forested part of Bethesda, Maryland where, I’m embarrassed to say, the only diversity is biodiversity. I struggle with this decision every day, and we miss our old walkable, diverse neighborhood. But we felt that the schools in Takoma Park were too “traditional” and focused on getting kids to pass Maryland’s basic skills test. Those pressures play out differently in communities where the kids are all upper-middle-class and are going to pass the tests no matter what.
10. What solutions exist for parents facing the “Diverse Schools Dilemma”?
They can absolutely make diverse public schools work for them, especially if schools are willing to group students by achievement levels for at least part of the day. Parents might also consider diverse magnet schools, charter schools, or even private schools—which are often more diverse than their public school peers.
The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools is available at Amazon.