As I Say, Not as I Do: Parents of All Backgrounds Say They Want Diverse Schools, but Their Choices Are Still Rooted in Bias

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Privileged parents say they want their children to attend integrated schools—but their choices tell a different story.

That’s what a study published by Harvard Graduate School of Education this week reveals. As the education blog The 74 reports, the new study found across all demographics, parents tended to agree that racial and economic integration in schools was important. This was true no matter the race, ethnic background, political affiliation, education or income level of the parent. And, since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, more parents voiced a preference for integrated schools.

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But the data shows when parents have the ability to choose between an integrated school versus a less diverse one, those communities become more segregated, not less. Inevitably, parents will pick a school based on concerns about quality and safety—concepts that are profoundly shaped by racial and class biases.

Frankly, one could look at worsening segregation in school districts throughout the country and make the same conclusions. Still, studies like this help reveal the contours of the thought processes driving worsening inequality in America’s school system.

From the report’s executive summary:

[M]any White, advantaged parents appear to determine school quality by how many other White, advantaged parents send their child to a school, without doing the legwork to determine what schools in a district are actually high-quality and a good fit for their child

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The study’s co-authors, senior lecturer Richard Weissbourd and Ph.D. student Eric Torres expounded on their findings to WBUR this week.

The problem with assessing a “quality” school, Weissbourd said, was how parents are making these evaluations.

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“They’re basing those judgments often on poor data, on average test scores at a school, which is not a good indicator of school quality. And sometimes all kinds of biases can get in the way too,” he said. “It looks like, from other research, that white advantaged parents often make decisions based on the number of other white advantaged parents at a school, not based on any real research about school safety or school quality or these kinds of important indicators.”

Basically, if it ain’t white, it ain’t right.

Torres echoed that finding.

“Many times parents use stand-ins for quality, like the number of white affluent students at a school, instead of thinking more deeply about the kinds of learning and growing that are going on. It’s difficult to wrap your head around what it means to be a high-quality school,” he told WBUR. If a parent wants a “quality” school, it requires more thoughtful research: speaking with teachers, talking to other parents, getting a sense of the school’s goals and mission, and looking at other available data.

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And, it means diversity, which isn’t just a matter of moral goodness or an act of charity. It is—as some data shows—every bit the marker of a “quality” education. As the report states, citing previous studies, integrated schools have significant academic and social benefits for low-income students and kids from under-resourced neighborhoods, and for more advantaged students.

As Weissbourd told WBUR, “Integration is good for your own kids, it’s good for other people’s kids and it’s critical for the country as a whole and it’s critical for a thriving democracy.”

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