NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Schools Try Economic Integration

May 8, 2003

Cambridge, Mass., has joined a small but growing movement to use income, not race, as a primary factor in assigning students to schools. School officials hope that adding a small number of middle-class students to poorer schools will have a powerful impact on improving achievement for all the school's children.

Cambridge's goal in turning to economic integration is twofold: raising the academic performance of students and achieving racial balance without resorting to race-based formulas that are increasingly being rejected by federal courts.

  • In addition to Cambridge, school districts in Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; South Orange-Maplewood, N.J.; Manchester, Conn.; St. Lucie County, Fla.; and San Francisco have adopted economic integration plans in recent years.
  • In LaCrosse, Wis., the first district to endorse economic integration in the early 1990s, scores have risen, and the district has a very low dropout rate despite a relatively high poverty rate.
  • Proponents of economic integration say there is ample evidence that all children learn better at schools where middle-class students are in the majority.

"While there are a handful of exceptions, in general high-poverty schools don't work," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, an educational researcher.

But critics say that the way to help low-income students make educational gains has to be more effective teaching -- not moving children around. "There's something wrong with the assumption that if you've got too many low-income kids in a classroom, you can't teach them," said Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has extensively researched race and education. "My response to that is: No excuses. Start to educate the kids."

Source: Sara Rimer, "Cambridge Schools Try Integration by Income," New York Times, May 8, 2003.


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