In a report released last month by the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, researchers urged policymakers to make changes that would address the issue of diversity in early childhood education. The report cited research and studies that suggested a strong correlation between the demographic makeup of preschool classrooms and student achievement; specifically that student achievement tended to suffer in classrooms made up of predominantly low-income, minority students who entered below grade level. These achievement results were not mirrored, however, for low-income, minority students who entered preschool below grade level but were educated in diverse classrooms – such students were able to catch up to their grade-level peers more rapidly.
It is interesting to consider the implications this research may have for school practices of tracking, or academic ability grouping. For context, in a public middle school in New York City, sixth graders will enter on a variety of different reading levels – sometimes ranging all the way from first grade to eleventh grade. Many teachers will argue that teaching a student on a first grade reading level in the same class as one on an eleventh grade reading level is not only challenging, but impossible. These teachers will advocate for leveled cohorts, to concentrate students together who are of similar ability levels, thus making it easier to reach all levels in one lesson. Others will argue, however, (and the research at Teachers College seems to suggest) that mixing the ability levels together in one class will allow lower-skilled students to learn from their higher-skilled peers, thus allowing them to advance more quickly and effectively than they would without peer modeling. Even the National Education Association recognizes this as an ongoing debate.
What is probably even more difficult to correct for than educational philosophy, however, is geographical segregation in our nation’s most economically diverse cities. In New York City, the largest example, cost of living is determined by location – which usually means proximity to the city’s center and accessibility to public transportation. This means that the poorest families are relegated to the outskirts of the city – the neighborhoods that are farthest away from Manhattan. Think the Bronx, Bed Stuy, East New York, Far Rockaway, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, minority status tends to correlate with poverty, so these neighborhoods tend to be pretty homogeneous. So it should come as no surprise that when students attend their neighborhood schools in these areas, the classrooms tend not to be very diverse either.
So while New York City is supposed to be a great melting pot of cultures, many minority children grow up seeing only people who look like them. Ultimately, until we can create diverse neighborhoods, it is not possible to systematically address diversity in schools.