On Political Books

January/ February 2013 Class No Longer Dismissed

Why some conservatives are warming to socioeconomic school integration.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

Even conservative opponents of busing for racial desegregation concede that white scores did not decline as schools integrated. And, as Petrilli finds in his own search, average test scores can be misleading. According to GreatSchools.org, a widely used website that rates schools by overall student outcomes from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest), Piney Branch, which is 33 percent low income, had a mediocre 6 rating. But more than 95 percent of its white students scored proficient, and very high proportions rated advanced. “Its average test scores might not be so great, but its white students are knocking it out of the park,” Petrilli writes.

If low-income students benefit from socioeconomic integration, how is it possible that middle-class students are not hurt? First, because schools like Piney Branch are still majority middle class and the numerical majority sets the tone in a school. Second, because low-income and minority students have been found by a long line of researchers—from Coleman to Caroline Hoxby to Eric Hanushek—to be more sensitive to changes in school quality given the weaker family environments on average found in low-income households. And, finally, most schools employ ability grouping in at least some subjects, such as math, which enables all students to move at their own pace.

Among education researchers, ability grouping is a hotly contested subject, and extreme forms of tracking can undermine the benefits of integration. But most schools only use ability grouping for certain subjects, and research has shown in jurisdictions from Montgomery County to St. Louis, Missouri, that even when ability grouping is employed, low-income students benefit greatly from being in middle-class schools.

Some schools, like Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, have adopted promising innovations on the question of tracking. As Petrilli notes, B-CC High School educates a wide group of students. “We’ve got the ambassadors’ kids, and we’ve got their maids’ kids,” the principal tells Petrilli. The school eliminated tracking in biology and now teaches mixed-ability classes, with some students given more challenging assignments that go into greater depth than others. This system works well, says Petrilli: “B-CC continues to excel academically while also making the most of its rich diversity.”

I won’t spoil the story by saying where Petrilli’s family ends up, other than to note that he remains ambivalent about his decision. But this book may be a significant—and hopeful—harbinger that the center-right school reform community, battered down by the humbling experience of trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, may be willing to take a new look at how to reinvent Brown v. Board of Education for the twenty-first century.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience: Buy from Amazon.com.

Richard D. Kahlenberg , a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice" and the editor of "The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy."