SD News Roundup, part 2: Research & op-eds about white parents

Last week, I posted a news roundup from the last month or so that focused on major stories about K-12 and higher ed admissions. As I mentioned there, these big stories likely overshadowed another trend I saw in the news during this time- compelling op-eds from white parents about the value of school integration and diversity. Of course, these topics complement each other. The first set of stories rightly sparks outrage over egregious racial differences in access to educational opportunity and hopefully leads people to ask questions about what can be done about it. I see the second set as one hopeful/promising answer to that question, a burgeoning movement led most notably by Integrated Schools, out of LA but with chapters all over the country. (If you’re not familiar, check out their website, twitter profile and podcast.)

Given the topic here, I thought this would be a good time to dig into my “to read” folder and pick out a recent study that used an innovative/unique way to learn more about how parents choose schools for their children. And, it specifically focused on white parents. So, I’ll start there. The article that came out in 2016 in Sociology of Education. The authors looked at “how racial stereotypes may affect school enrollment preferences.” A couple points about the study design –

  • It is based on hypothetical schools and hypothetical choices that white parents may make about those schools. Of course, there are obviously differences between making a hypothetical decision and making a real decision for your actual child, but this design allowed them to look at things in a different way and ask questions that would be harder to answer if restricted to actual schools and decisions.
  • Specifically, the authors wanted to know: are parents affected more by the racial composition of a school or by “racial proxies”? And, by the latter, they’re referring to specific ways that we talk about race implicitly: perceptions about school safety, quality of the school facilities and the school’s test-based rating.
  • In the survey, they randomly generated hypothetical schools that varied according to racial composition and each of the three racial proxies and then simply asked parents if they’d send their kid to that randomly generated school.
  • Here’s the value of the hypothetical approach- some schools might have a racial composition that is predominantly non-white, but would also rate highly in each of the racial proxies. Because of structural racism, we know that it’s rare in the real world for a school to be predominantly non-white and well-funded. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to know: if a school serves a predominantly non-white population, but checks out okay in all the reasons that people typically cite in avoiding such schools, would white people still send their kids there?
  • The survey also measured parents’ stated attitudes about race and about differences between white people and black people. It was distributed online to 862 parents, all of whom self-identified as white.

The results were fascinating, even if they confirm what we already know: race matters. And, it matters over and above the proxies and regardless of the parent’s stated attitude about race. A few specific points:

  • The authors found “a relatively steady downward trend in the likelihood of enrollment as the proportion of black students rises, irrespective of the school’s academic record” (p. 108). In particular, for every 1% increase in the black student population at a school, the likelihood of enrollment decreased by 1.7%. Overall: “racial bias is in fact responsive to the racial composition of schools rather than to other school characteristics” (p. 110).
  • It wasn’t just the parents with low racial attitude scores. Instead: “all white parents, on average, responded negatively to an increase in the proportion of black students” – it was just more pronounced for the parents with a “higher pro-white sentiment” (p. 110).

There’s an important message here for school choice: “that augmenting parental freedom of choice will likely exacerbate the pattern of increased racial segregation already taking place in many school districts as white parents seek out schools with fewer black students” (p. 113). Indeed, school choice mechanisms like charter schools have helped to drive recent trends in school re-segregation. But, there’s a growing movement of parents who are using choice – within their public school systems as well as choice about where to live – to send their children to integrating schools.

That brings me to the op-eds from the last month. In the interest of space, I’ve included short summaries and key quotes from each.

  • “From one white parent to another: Don’t pick schools because they’re selective and mostly white,” by Amy Stuart Wells in the Hetchinger Report
    • This piece was written by an accomplished school diversity researcher and the president of the country’s largest educational research organization- the American Educational Research Association. But, it’s less about research than about the interpersonal dynamics that preserve segregated schools, and it’s extremely compelling in that regard.
    • In particular, Wells calls out parents who choose schools based on more on the prestige is bestoys on them, than on the learning experiences for their children. She notes that: “many white parents continue to derive status and honor from one another when their children are selected into predominantly white or Asian schools regardless of the climate or characteristics of these schools.”
    • And, the author brings in the research that supports integration, making a point that doesn’t come up often enough: “Cutting-edge research in brain science and education tells us that students learn better and deeper when their ways of knowing a topic are challenged by those who have different life experiences and worldviews.”
  • “Why I chose city’s public schools” by Maya Hu DeHart in the Providence Journal
    • This piece was written by a mom who has chosen to send her two children to Providence public schools, as opposed to pursuing charter or private school options. In a short article, she addresses multiple common arguments against such a choice, including: “I want to provide the best for my kids” and “I cannot sacrifice my kids’ education for my values.”
    • Her response: “I am confident that I’m not risking my children’s future by sending them to an urban public school. A recent longitudinal study confirmed what I already knew: once you control for family income and parents’ education level, academic and social emotional advantages of private school are eliminated” and “My kids are thriving — learning how to think critically and making friends with diverse students.”
  • “White parents are enabling school segregation — if it doesn’t hurt their own kids” by Noah Berlatsky in Think (by NBC News).
    • This piece is more of a historical look at how white parents have upheld school segregation over time and draws a direct line to the resistance we see today. It’s written by a white parent who chose a global majority school, and includes reflection on the value of that decision.
    • In particular, the author notes that resistance today takes many forms, from claims that “when I advocate for desegregation, I am actually working to destroy white parents and white children” to “just quietly [using] your money and education to leverage structural inequality in your favor.”
    • Like the other pieces here, the author talks about the decision to send his son to a global majority school, reflecting that: “being at a school where most people aren’t white hasn’t put him in danger. Instead, he’s had opportunities I never had in my all-white high school in northeastern Pennsylvania. He can practice his Spanish by speaking with bilingual classmates. He works with extremely talented young black and Latinx Shakespearean actors. He knows people who don’t look like him. That’s valuable.”
  • “Group offers perspective on METCO benefits to Newton” by Families Organizing for Racial Justice (FORJ) in Wicked Local Newton.
    • This comes from a coalition of parents located in overwhelmingly white Newton, MA who argue for the value of the METCO program, a long-standing program that sends students from Boston and Springfield to nearby majority white districts.
    • METCO is currently revamping its application/enrollment process to reach more families and recently held an advocacy day to promote the program and request additional funding from the MA state legislature.
    • As part of the advocacy effort, FORJ wrote about how METCO benefits Newton students, noting: “we prize the increased diversity that METCO brings to our classrooms and schools. Newton children are able to have more friends of diverse backgrounds AND expand their definition of their community in a real way through these friendships to include Boston neighborhoods. In addition, parents and caregivers get to know one another through their children and participation in their schools’ communities, which further expands our social networks and understanding of the world.”
  • “What do I tell my son about school segregation?” by Jay Wamsted in Sojourners
    • This article was written by a white dad who teaches in a majority non-white school, and it was published in Sojourners whose mission is “to articulate the biblical call to social justice.”
    • The main argument: avoiding difficult topics/history with white children will only normalize the racial inequity that they will unavoidably witness in contemporary American society. He notes: “rest assured that a straight line can be drawn from the decades before Brown v. Board to these still-segregated spaces — if I can’t face the fact that King’s dream is very much still in process, I will perpetuate a lie of racial inferiority that has obtained for far too long. Because what other lesson could Simon learn from an all-black school in constant threat of state takeover if I try to pretend that the playing field is somehow level?”

As a white parent of a 2.5 year old (and someone who works in school integration research), I think about this topic constantly. There’s a lot to say, but I’ll leave it at this for now: it bugs me to think that I may one day may be asked to justify the decision that we make for my daughter, while choosing a predominately white school is perceived as the default/normal/rational choice. As pointed out by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, white students are the most isolated racial group in America’s public schools and, research indicates strongly that the benefits of school integration also extend to white students. Nonetheless, if/when I do have to offer justification for school diversity, I’ll be enormously grateful that I have folks like those above who came before me.

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