Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Diversity: Individual vs. Collective Good

The Wake County Board of Education is considering significantly modifying one of the largest remaining efforts at school busing for diversity -- in this case, economic diversity, given that busing for racial diversity has been overturned legally.

Opponents of the planned change charge that this represents a return to segregation, but reading about the motivations of those pushing to reduce busing suggest it's more a question of individual versus collective good.
When Rosemarie Wilson moved her family to a wealthy suburb of Raleigh a couple of years ago, the biggest attraction was the prestige of the local public schools. Then she started talking to neighbors.

Don’t believe the hype, they warned. Many were considering private schools. All pointed to an unusual desegregation policy, begun in 2000, in which some children from wealthy neighborhoods were bused to schools in poorer areas, and vice versa, to create economically diverse classrooms.

“Children from the 450 houses in our subdivision were being bused all across the city,” said Ms. Wilson, for whom the final affront was a proposal by the Wake County Board of Education to send her two daughters to schools 17 miles from home.
Now, it's possible to read all sorts of dark racist or classist motives into these kind of conflicts, but it strikes me that the real difficult here is in reconciling private and public goods.

There is a clear logic to the idea that if a school has a highly diverse student body in terms of wealth, race, background and academic ability, the most stake of the more fortunate and more able in the school's overall success will result in the entire group being pulled up.

However, at the same time, it is utterly and completely reasonable that a parent, given the choice of two schools -- one with better teachers and less crime than the other -- would pick the better school for his children.

Now, in a situation in which the community is small or mobility is low, it may be that there's really only one possible school to choose. In that case, people find themselves in the same boat by necessity and those will the means to do so will exert themselves in order to improve the school. However, in a mass society with a high mobility, a parent is faced with a very different situation: Moving to a neighborhood with better schools (or opting out of the public school system in favor of private schooling or homeschooling) can make a very big difference in the future of his own children, while the removal of just one more affluent and more academically able student from a school composed of hundred will be of no measurable detriment to the more disadvantaged students. And yet, if all of the parents with more money or more concern about academics remove their children from a struggling school, the school will not only do worse on average (having removed the upper end of the curve) but may even serve the poorer and underachieving students worse than before, since they will now lack the resources and influence of the higher-achieving students who left.

Government can try to force students into undesirable schools in order that they may exert some sort of upwards pressure on them, but since efforts will naturally be resented and resisted since parents naturally want the best for their children.

There is no obvious trade-off which helps everybody.


Anthony said...

Is there real evidence that placing kids from lower-class backgrounds into schools with kids from middle-class backgrounds actually helps either group? Or even helps the lower-class kids more than it hurts the middle-class kids?

Given the popularity of "ghetto culture" among kids, even middle-class kids, is it more reasonable to expect that middle-class kids in a mixed environment will adopt more of the habits and values of the lower-class kids than vice-versa?

Darwin said...

I've seen several studies referenced which claim to show that both lower class kids do better in school if they're mixed in with middle and upper class kids. I haven't torn down any of them to see if they have proper controls.

Anonymous said...

I would be really ticked off I had sacrificed to get into a good school district with its attendant higher property taxes and then my kid ended up in a crummy, out of district school.

Kate said...

It should, in theory, be possible to raise performance across the board by 'salting' the good schools with just a few underperforming students each, and leaving the poorer schools with their normal student population, minus the worst of the troublemakers. Really, that's the benefit to these schemes - the underperforming kids who get moved typically do better away from the influences and expectations of their original peer group and struggling schools typically do at least a little better if the most disruptive students are removed. I can't see any good purpose being served by transferring good studnets to underperforming school districts though.