Can a Truly Diverse School Challenge the Best Students?

Email a Friend

There’s little doubt that many New York neighborhoods are a-changing. Upper middle-class parents with toddlers in tow have invaded lower Manhattan, big chunks of Harlem, and huge swaths of Brooklyn. This is why Gotham is now home to five of the 25 fastest-gentrifying zip codes in the country.

But as Pew’s Alan Ehrenhalt asked in his recent book The Great Inversion will those families stay in the city once their children reach school-age, or will they bolt to the suburbs (or the private school sector) like previous generations? The answer is already in, at least in many neighborhoods: many families have stayed and, by doing so, they are changing New York’s public schools.

Thanks to gentrification, neighborhoods throughout New York City now enjoy the best opportunity in a generation to integrate their public schools. But to make good on this opportunity, they are going to have to navigate what I call the Diverse Schools Dilemma. They are going to need to find ways to meet the enormous educational needs of their disadvantaged students while also meeting the legitimate (and often different) needs of the more affluent new arrivals.

This is the issue I explore in my recent book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. In cities across America - New York but also Washington, D.C., Denver, Atlanta, Seattle, Oakland, and others — middle and upper-middle class families are choosing the urban neighborhoods and public schools that their parents abandoned 30 or 40 years ago.

They are part of a generation that grew up with Seinfeld and Friends, who can barely remember the crack cocaine wars of the 1980s, and who desperately want to avoid living in what they see as the soulless suburbs.

But that doesn’t mean these parents don’t have misgivings about choosing public schools. Among the concerns: will these diverse schools be prepared to give their children the attention they deserve? What if their teachers are focused instead on helping recent immigrant children learn English, or giving low-income kids remedial help? What if the schools are test-prep factories, obsessed only with getting students to basic proficiency in reading and math?

These are hardly hypothetical questions. Here’s one critical challenge (or dilemma, if you will): in schools that serve both poor and affluent students, there tends to be an enormous range of achievement levels. On average, middle-class children are two to three grade levels ahead of their low-income peers at any given time. Which makes it far harder for teachers to instruct all students together.

There are no perfect solutions to this problem. One option is to group students by ability with the high achievers in one classroom, the lower in another. But in socioeconomically diverse schools, that will tend to result in classrooms segregated by class (and often race) and who wants to send their child to an “integrated” school with segregated classrooms?

The other option is to mix all of the students together, and ask teachers to “differentiate instruction.” As UCLA professor Gary Orfield told me, “If the teacher knows what to do, she can handle a lot of diversity.”

The notion behind differentiated instruction is that one teacher instructs a diverse group of kids and manages to reach each one at precisely the appropriate level. Every child receives a tailored curriculum that meets his or her exact needs. A teacher might give specialized homework assignments, for example, or provide the specific one-on-one help that a particular kid requires.

If you think that sounds hard to do, you’re not alone. I asked Holly Hertberg-Davis, one of the leading experts on differentiated instruction, if the practice sounds too good to be true. She worked on a large study of differentiated instruction. Teachers were provided with extensive training and ongoing coaching. Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped.

“We couldn’t answer the question,” Hertberg-Davis told me, “because no one was actually differentiating.”

And if students of mixed abilities are in class together, evidence suggests that the low-achievers get the lion’s share of the teachers’ attention. In a 2008 national survey, 80 percent of teachers said that struggling students were most likely to get one-on-one instruction; only 5 percent said the same of top students.

So how can schools address the dilemma of academic diversity? The best option is probably to find some sort of compromise, to group students by achievement level for part of the day (say, for math and reading lessons) and to mix all students together the rest of the day (say, for social studies, science, art, music, gym, and recess).

Is New York up to the task? I’d never bet against the Big Apple.