Harvard Educational Review
  1. All Together Now

    Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice

    By Richard D. Kahlenberg

    Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2001. 379 pp. $29.95

    All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice, by Richard D. Kahlenberg, is a clarion call for the socioeconomic desegregation of U.S. public schools. Simultaneously principled and pragmatic, Kahlenberg marshals a great deal of evidence to support his argument that integrating U.S. schools along socioeconomic lines is a necessary precondition for successful educational reform. U.S. schools, he notes, remain highly segregated by socioeconomic class. The concentration of low-income students in one quarter of the nation’s schools places unfair educational burdens on teachers, parents, administrators, and students themselves, and leads to the misallocation of an important educational resource: peer influence. By using public school choice to redistribute students within school systems, policymakers can ensure that every child attends a school in which the majority of the students come from middle-class homes.

    In chapter one, Kahlenberg introduces the “animating vision of this book,” which is “that all schoolchildren in America have the right to attend a solidly middle-class public ‘common school’” (p. 1). Creating more middle-class schools is essential, he argues, because two other strategies for promoting equal educational opportunities — racial integration and compensatory education — have proved disappointing. In order for socioeconomic integration to work, however, it must be combined with public school choice. Choice is important because, along with fairness and unity, it is one of three “central American values” (p. 6).

    Chapter two provides background information for the book’s main argument. In this chapter, Kahlenberg discusses how U.S. schools are failing to promote equal opportunity and social mobility, and the role that socioeconomic segregation plays in this. In chapter three the author begins to make the educational case for socioeconomic integration. Kahlenberg presents extensive evidence that “the socioeconomic status of classmates has a powerful effect on academic achievement” (p. 25). This effect is independent of the effect of a student’s own socioeconomic status. Kahlenberg also presents evidence that “from an academic achievement standpoint, the social class of a student’s classmates matters more than their race” (p. 36). These two findings suggest that attending schools with high poverty concentrations places low-income students in double jeopardy, and that socioeconomic integration might be an important lever for raising overall academic achievement. Kahlenberg addresses concerns that integration might negatively affect middle-class students by citing research evidence that having more low-income classmates does not hurt middle-class students, as long as the schools they attend remain predominantly middle class and employ some ability grouping or limited tracking in some academic subjects.

    After sketching out the broad outline of his argument, Kahlenberg delves more deeply in chapter four into the question of why the socioeconomic composition of schools matters. While he barely avoids making an argument that attributes low academic achievement to a culture of poverty or that blames the victims, he does assert that

    high-poverty schools are marked by students who have less motivation and are often subject to negative peer influences; parents who are generally less active, exert less clout in school affairs, and garner fewer financial resources for the school; and teachers who tend to be less qualified, to have lower expectations, and to teach watered-down curriculum. Giving all students access to schools with a core of middle-class students and parents will significantly raise the overall quality of schooling in America. (p. 47)

    Kahlenberg’s point is not that the middle-class has a superior culture to which low-income students should be exposed, but rather that when schools have high concentrations of poor students, educators face overwhelming challenges and have insufficient resources, both financial and social, to meet them. Socioeconomic integration makes meeting these challenges more manageable at any given school. Integrating schools has the potential to create more academically productive peer cultures and less disruptive classroom and school environments, and the potential to ensure that each school has a core of active parents who will demand high performance from teachers and administrators. It may also even out, across schools, the expectations that teachers have for students and the curricula they offer.

    In chapter five, Kahlenberg discusses why some alternatives are less powerful than socioeconomic integration. He divides these alternatives into “piecemeal reforms . . . that address discrete inequalities . . . and global responses” (p. 77). Piecemeal reforms — such as standards, teacher development, and class-size reduction — are insufficient because they leave the mix of people within schools, which is more important than structural reforms, unchanged. Moreover, structural reforms are not likely to be implemented or sustained unless the people within schools change. Without integration, Kahlenberg contends, poor schools are likely to continue to have teachers with lower credentials and who hold lower expectations of students than teachers in more affluent schools. Poor schools will also continue to lack the important social resources of positive peer influence and parent involvement. Global solutions, such as racial desegregation or vouchers, also fall short. Racial desegregation is a limited strategy because it is currently politically and legally out of favor, and because schools’ socioeconomic class compositions matter more for academic achievement than their racial compositions. Private school vouchers are limited because most plans, as proposed, would probably lead to more rather than less socioeconomic segregation.

    In chapter six the author tackles the nuts and bolts of putting socioeconomic integration into practice. He discusses various policy options for defining students’ socioeconomic status, for setting the proper mix of students within schools, and for putting into place a controlled choice system of student assignment. Under a controlled choice system, parents and students submit their top choices for the schools they would like to attend, and the central office makes assignment decisions based on these preferences, as well as on the goal of socioeconomic balance. Kahlenberg then discusses the benefits of controlled choice over compulsory assignment, uncontrolled choice, and magnet schools. Kahlenberg also talks about the need in some metropolitan areas for district consolidation or interdistrict choice. While in the vast majority of metropolitan areas majority middle-class schools can be achieved within district lines, in 14 percent of school districts, crossing or redrawing district lines may be needed. Kahlenberg concludes the chapter by discussing policies regarding tracking and discipline that might be necessary to make integration work, both practically and politically.

    In chapters seven and eight, Kahlenberg discusses the political and legal feasibility of economic school integration and rebuts the case against it. He argues that socioeconomic integration is less controversial and has much broader public support than racial integration. Moreover, combining integration with public school choice is quite powerful politically. A significant part of the opposition to busing, Kahlenberg argues, stems from its compulsory nature. By empowering parents with choice and carefully designing integration plans — for instance, placing attractive educational programs in working-class neighborhoods — policymakers can harness parental self-interest toward positive educational ends. In further addressing potential objections to socioeconomic integration, the author argues that integration will not overwhelm or stigmatize low-income children; that the concerns that moving away from neighborhood schools will destroy an important community institution are overblown; that integration will not substantially increase middle-class flight from public schools; and that additional transportation costs for implementing integration would be modest.

    Finally, in chapter nine, Kahlenberg describes the experiences of three communities — La Crosse, Wisconsin; Wake County, North Carolina; and Manchester, Connecticut — with socioeconomic integration. While these communities faced opposition to their integration plans, they were ultimately successful in improving the socioeconomic balance within their schools.

    All Together Now arrives at an opportune moment. At a time when racial desegregation efforts have run afoul of federal court rulings and declining public support, and when voucher proposals challenge some of the core ideals of the common school, Kahlenberg’s important book proposes an integration strategy that has a chance of garnering broad support and raising overall educational performance. It deserves to find a broad audience.

    E.P.L
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