School Integration Is Making a Comeback as Research Documents Its Benefits | Teachers College Columbia University

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School Integration Is Making a Comeback as Research Documents Its Benefits


A Teachers College study funded by The Century Foundation summarizes the case for a policy that’s regaining support

As the Obama administration proposes a new plan to foster more school integration, and as white, upper-income “gentrifiers” move into cities like New York in droves, the number of racially and socioeconomically diverse public schools in the United States again is on the rise. Where many white, middle-class parents in past decades opted out of such schools, today they are more likely to embrace their diversity. A new study from Teachers College validates parents’ intuition about the benefits of diversity for their children, concluding that diverse public schools can have a strong positive academic and social impact on all students. In fact, this evidence documenting the benefits of learning in diverse K-12 classrooms suggests that school integration may be an idea whose time has come—again.   

This vast body of research is synthesized in the Teachers College report -- one of two recently released by the Century Foundation.

The evidence for the beneficial effects of integration – including enhanced creativity and motivation, deeper learning, and sharper critical thinking and problem-solving skills – is summarized in How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students, a new report coauthored by Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Sociology & Education at Teachers College, and doctoral students Lauren Fox and Diana Cordova-Cobo.


“As our K-12 student population becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, the time is right for our political leaders to pay more attention to the evidence, intuition and common sense that supports the importance of racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse educational settings to prepare the next generation,” the TC authors write.

“Advocates of racially integrated schools understand that much of the recent racial tension and unrest in this nation—from Ferguson to Baltimore to Staten Island—may well have been avoided if more children had attended schools that taught them to address implicit biases related to racial, ethnic and cultural difference,” the authors continue.

The other report, A New Wave of School Integration, by Century Foundation researchers, finds that the number of districts and charter networks nationwide using socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment has more than doubled since 2007.  Such socio-economic integration plans lead to more racial and ethnic diversity in many instances.

After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 mandated racial integration in the nation’s classrooms, many urban school districts used busing and magnet schools to create racially balanced classrooms. Beginning in the 1980s, however, those programs were rolled back in the face of legal and political challenges, returning many schools to de facto racial segregation. At the same time, policymakers began implementing more accountability systems that often worked against diversity efforts by penalizing schools and districts with lower-achieving students.

Today, however, urban and suburban migration patterns present a window of opportunity to solidify racial integration in schools and communities, the TC researchers assert. In many metropolitan areas, middle-class whites are moving back to gentrifying urban communities, driving up housing prices and forcing inner city minorities to move to less expensive housing in the suburbs—reversing the migration of whites to the suburbs in the years following World War II.


The result of this reverse migration is that many urban  and suburban neighborhoods are in “a state of flux and de facto integrated,” if only temporarily, the Teachers College authors write, offering a chance for planners, educators and politicians  to reconsider racially and socioeconomically diverse schools  as a strategy for closing the racial achievement gap and improving academic performance of all children.

“A growing body of research suggests that the benefits of K-12 school diversity indeed flow in all directions—to white and middle-class students as well as to minority and low-income pupils,” the TC authors write. More specifically, the report cites research showing that:

  • Attending racially diverse schools is beneficial to all students and is associated with smaller gaps in test scores among students of different racial backgrounds, specifically due to increases in black and/or Hispanic student achievement.
  • Students of all races who attend racially integrated schools also have higher SAT scores and are less likely to drop out than students in segregated, high-poverty schools.
  • Racially diverse educational institutions help young people challenge stereotypes and their implicit biases toward people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. The research finds that such biases can be harmful to both those who hold the biases and the targets of these biases, causing both groups to be distracted from learning.
  • Students' satisfaction and intellectual self-confidence increase when educators tap into the educational benefits of diverse classrooms by helping students challenge their assumptions and learn from more than one perspective.
  • Learning in integrated settings can also enhance students’ leadership skills.
  • Integrating schools leads to more equitable access to important resources such as structural facilities, highly qualified teachers, challenging courses, private and public funding, and social and cultural capital.

Conversely, the authors observe, “attending racially segregated, high-poverty schools has a strong negative association with students’ academic achievement (often measured through grade-level reading and math test scores).”

The Teachers College report also finds evidence that the time is right politically to put integration education strategies back on the table.

“School integration—using new, more legally and politically palatable approaches—is getting a second look as an educational reform strategy,” Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation, writes in the report’s introduction.

The Teachers College researchers make four policy recommendations to advance integration in public schools:

  • Student Assignment and Enrollment Policies: Federal and state policies should provide incentives to districts and schools that attract and stabilize racial and socioeconomically diverse public schools.
  • Redefining “Good” Schools for the Twenty-first Century: Federal and state policies should include indicators of diversity and measures of intergroup relations and intercultural understanding in measuring and judging “good” schools.
  • Teacher Education Programs: Future teachers should be prepared to foster the educational benefits of diversity by allowing students of different backgrounds to learn from each other in the context of equal status, common goals, and mutual respect.
  • Parents and local leaders should support racially and ethnically diverse public schools in both gentrifying urban communities and diversifying suburban communities.

The Teachers College paper was released by The Century Foundation in conjunction with “A New Wave of School Integration: Districts and Charters Pursuing Socioeconomic Diversity,” by TCF fellow Halley Potter, TCF policy associate Kimberly Quick, and Elizabeth Davies.

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Published Tuesday, Feb 9, 2016

Amy Stuart Wells
Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Sociology and Education
(From L-R) Amy Stuart Wells with TC doctoral students Lauren Fox and Diana Cordova-Cobo, who co-authored the report.