Nearly 60 years ago, the court ruling Brown v. Board of Education recognized that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. It is the very foundation of good citizenship.” The ruling also made the claim that desegregation would benefit all students and that providing students with inclusive educational opportunities from an early age is crucial to achieving the nation’s educational and civic goals. Years later, however, we continue to struggle with this issue. Some people still ask the question: what kinds of benefits stem from a diverse classroom?
As a product of a racially diverse public school system outside of Chicago, I believe that my classroom experience provided me with incalculable educational and civic benefits. However, I find measuring and identifying those benefits extremely difficult. While growing up, it never occurred to me that I was actively breaking down racial stereotypes or becoming a more culturally sensitive person. Instead, I found that being around students and teachers who were different than me was just the norm. In a way, I believe that that is the overall intended outcome: being comfortable and motivated to participate in a heterogeneous and multifaceted society. Right?
Today, many years after Brown v. Board of Education, my public school experience would be relatively uncommon. In fact, according to the US Department of Education, an overwhelming number of our schools are what they refer to as “racially isolated” (i.e., are composed overwhelmingly of students of one race). With that said, one could easily ask, who cares if schools are racially isolated? Well, the US Department of Education would like to make it clear that they do, in fact, care.
Last month, the US Department of Education and Justice jointly released new guidelines for school districts concerning the flexibility that the Supreme Court can provide to educational institutions to promote diversity and reduce racial isolation among students. Within the guidelines, it is made clear that educators may permissibly consider the race of students in carefully constructed plans to promote diversity and reduce racial isolation. It recognizes the learning benefits to students when schools include students of diverse backgrounds. According to Sec. Arne Duncan, “Racial isolation remains far too common in America’s classrooms today and it is increasing. This denies our children the experiences they need to succeed in a global economy, where employers, co-workers, and customers will be increasingly diverse. It also breeds educational inequity, which is inconsistent with America’s core values.”
As part of the guidelines, a 14-page guide has been disseminated to K-12 school officials around the country. So what do these guidelines propose? In general, the guidance provides numerous examples of options that schools can consider to further diversify or reduce racial isolation. For K-12 schools, the guidance discusses school and program citing, drawing school attendance boundaries, grade realignment and restructuring feeder patterns, among others. Even further, the guidelines show a commitment from the Federal Government to promote diversity.
Again, I am confident that growing up in a diverse community has influenced my understanding of my personal racial identity and how I interact with others. However, even 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, what are some of the barriers that are keeping our classrooms from being diverse? Should we be further along? And, are there truly benefits from being in a diverse classroom? What are the costs of changing the racial make up of a classroom? Is the federal government the right entity to administer policies and guidelines that promote diversity? When you have a minute, please share you thoughts.