What Can Integrated Schools Do for Your Child?
Why diversity is important for children and schools.
Posted May 9, 2019
This post was written by Christina Rucinski, a doctoral student in the Applied Developmental Psychology program at Fordham University. The article is based on her dissertation, which she successfully defended. Dr. Rucinski will begin a postdoctoral research position in partnership with Perception Institute and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UMass Amherst.
Recently, The New York Times published a piece describing San Francisco’s failed quest to achieve racial/ethnic integration in public schools by relying on a race-neutral parent choice system. The takeaway? Parent choice programs inevitably benefit parents who have the resources (time, flexibility, and social capital) to research the best schools and the options (transportation, childcare) to get their children across town to those schools each morning. Without busing programs and school zones intentionally drawn to integrate, parent choice won’t get the job done. The current system limits the amount of racial/ethnic diversity children will experience as they enter school for the first time.
Does school diversity matter? For reducing prejudice in a multicultural society, yes. For closing racial achievement gaps, absolutely. But these effects may seem pretty abstract for parents who are grappling with the concrete implications of entrusting the education of their precious little ones to a particular environment. Even well-intentioned parents are naturally looking out for their own children’s well-being first and foremost.
So we might want to know: As children enter school, how does exposure to racial/ethnic diversity relate to their individual development? Developmental psychology theory suggests that interacting with diverse peers challenges children to recognize, understand, and integrate differences in experiences and ideas between themselves and others, which may then promote complex thinking skills and social abilities. I sought to test this theory through my doctoral dissertation. Using a nationally representative dataset and including over 6,700 children in my statistical analyses, I examined how children’s cumulative exposure to racial/ethnic diversity in their kindergarten, first grade, and second-grade classrooms predicted their outcomes in third grade.
Controlling for a host of other child and classroom characteristics, I found that higher exposure to classroom diversity was associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and problematic interactions with peers (think aggression and exclusion) by third grade, according to teacher reports. Additionally, higher diversity exposure was related to higher scores on a cognitive flexibility task, suggesting that interacting with diverse peers helps children develop the ability to flexibly shift their focus from one concept to another, which could underlie other problem solving or emotion regulation abilities.
Of course, nothing is simple. Evidence also shows that exposure to same-race peers and teachers may have positive impacts on development, particularly for children of color. Further research is needed to determine what the best balance might be to ensure that children experience both a sense of belonging in their classrooms and the healthy challenge of exposure to peers from different backgrounds.
While the school-age population is becoming increasingly multicultural, we have witnessed a resurgence of segregated schools within the past few decades. A second question I tackled in my dissertation was the extent to which young children in the U.S. have the opportunity to interact with peers from different backgrounds in their daily school experiences. The same nationally representative sample showed that, on average, the level of classroom diversity a child encounters upon entering school is far lower than would be expected based on population demographics. Children ranged widely the amount of racial/ethnic diversity they experienced in their early elementary classrooms, from completely homogenous to highly heterogeneous. If we consider exposure to diversity a potentially beneficial educational resource, it is clear that this resource is not being distributed evenly.
What the New York Times article illustrates particularly clearly is the extent to which parents will go to bat to ensure their children receive a high-quality education. Luckily, in this case, parents don’t need to sacrifice the greater good in order to benefit their own families. If parents truly want the best for their children, they should choose to support desegregation plans including busing strategies that are actually effective in creating diverse classrooms that benefit all children.
Benner, A.D., & Crosnoe, R. (2011). The racial/ethnic composition of elementary schools and young children’s academic and socioemotional functioning. American Education Research Journal, 48, 621-646, doi: 10.3102/0002831210384838.
Hanushek, E. A., Kain, J. F., & Rivkin, S. G. (2009). New evidence about Brown v. Board of Education: The complex effects of school racial composition on achievement. Journal of Labor Economics, 27(3), 349-383.
Orfield, G., Frankenberg, E., Ee, J., & Kuscera, J. (2014). Brown at 60: Great progress, a long retreat and an uncertain future. Los Angeles, CA: Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.
Rucinski, C. L. Variation in exposure to early elementary classroom racial/ethnic diversity and child development in a nationally representative sample (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Fordham University, New York.
Rucinski, C. L., Sutton, E., Carlton, R., Downer, J. & Brown J. L. (2019). Classroom racial/ethnic diversity and upper elementary students’ social-emotional development. Applied Developmental Science.
Tropp, L. R., & Prenovost, M. (2008). The role of intergroup contact in predicting children’s interethnic attitudes: Evidence from meta-analytic and field studies. In S. Levy & M. Killen (Eds.), Intergroup attitudes and relations in childhood through adulthood (pp. 236–248). New York: Oxford University Press.
Yip, T., Cheon, Y. M., & Wang, Y. (2019). The diversity paradox: Opportunities and challenges of “contact in context” across development. Research in Human Development, 16(1), 51-75.