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Winter 01
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The Educational Value of Diversity: Research from Louisville High Schools


Evidence is beginning to mount that more diverse classrooms and campuses are better learning environments than classrooms and campuses that lack diversity. Research featured in earlier editions of Diversity Digest suggests that more diverse environments increase all students' level of critical thinking skills and advance students' satisfaction with college. Patricia Gurin's recent study suggests further that students from all racial and ethnic groups educated in diverse settings more readily and actively participate in a pluralistic society. (See Diversity Digest, Spring 1999).

New evidence is beginning to suggest that these findings are consistent across different levels of schooling, including at the high school level. A recent study sponsored by the Harvard Civil Rights Project in collaboration with the National School Boards Association's Council of Urban Boards of Education found that high school students in metropolitan Louisville--a particularly diverse and integrated urban school system--reported that they benefited greatly from the diversity of their schools. They reported strong educational benefits in three categories: critical thinking skills, future educational goals, and principles of citizenship.

Researchers asked students about their experiences in their schools and classrooms, and about their future goals, educational aspirations, attitudes and interests. A survey was administered in early 2000 to 1164 students--a representative sample of juniors from which was obtained a response rate of more than 90 percent. Students' responses to the questionnaire were strikingly positive and consistent across racial lines. In addition to the educational outcomes survey data, study authors also created composite variables to examine students' aspirations for higher education and their comfort living and working in multiracial environments.

This new study in Louisville built on earlier research on the impact of desegregation on minority students. The previous research suggests that minority students who attend more integrated schools have increased academic achievement and higher test scores. The current report suggests that "there is substantial evidence that desegregated schooling is associated with positive educational outcomes for minority students." The Louisville study attempted to measure the impact of racial diversity and desegregation on white students as well. Study authors chose to look at this school district because both African American and white students in the Louisville area "have been educated in much more diverse schools than children living in most American communities."

Findings on Curriculum and Critical Thinking Skills

This study "asked about the presence of diversity in the curriculum and about learning experiences that would promote the type of rich discussions and educational opportunities that lead to better educational outcomes." It found that, "around 90 percent of students from all racial and ethnic groups report that exposure in the curriculum to different cultures and experiences of different racial and ethnic groups has helped them to better understand points of view different from their own." Further, it found that students from all racial groups report about the same level of diversity in their curricula. Students surveyed did report a greater level of diversity content in social studies/history classes than in their English classes.

As earlier research by Gurin and others has suggested, the content of the curriculum is important, but it is not the only important component to diversity learning outcomes. The level of intergroup interaction is also essential to learning. This study examined the level of positive interaction among students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. It found that, "a large majority of students (around 90 percent) from all racial groups report being comfortable or very comfortable discussing controversial issues related to race. Similarly, 95 percent of African American and 92 percent of white students report being comfortable or very comfortable working with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds on group projects." Further, the study found that, "90 percent of all races felt comfortable or very comfortable learning about the differences between people from other racial and ethnic groups, and these results extend as well to working with students from other language backgrounds."

Study authors also did regression analysis to ascertain the impact of curricular diversity on attitudes towards living and working in multi-racial settings. They found that there is, in fact, a positive and statistically significant impact of diversity in the curriculum on these attitudes.

Findings on Educational Goals and Future College Access

This study also measured whether learning in a diverse educational setting affects students' educational goals and aspirations. The study revealed close similarities by racial group in responses to questions about educational aspirations. For instance, around 50 to 60 percent of students from all racial groups indicate that they are "very interested" or "interested" in taking honors or Advanced Placement (AP) mathematics or English courses. In addition, roughly even numbers of all students are "interested" or "very interested" in taking a foreign language after high school. A very substantial number (80 to 85 percent) of students report an interest in attending a four-year college.

The study also suggests that access to information about college is roughly the same across different racial and ethnic groups. However, students reported different levels of encouragement to enroll in an AP or honors class by racial group. Seventy-three percent of white students reported having teachers or other school officials encourage them to take such classes while only 60 percent of African American students reported such encouragement.

Findings on Citizenship and Democracy

"Research on higher education suggests that students who experience diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions on campus show the most engagement in various forms of citizenship and the most engagement with people from different races and cultures, both during college and beyond" (see Patricia Gurin's article in Diversity Digest, Spring, 1999). The study on Louisville pursued this question of the impact of diversity in education on citizenship and democracy outcomes as well. It measured whether students in Louisville felt prepared to work and live in diverse settings. The study found that more than 80 percent of students believed that they were prepared to work in diverse settings and that they were likely to do so in the future. As the report suggests, "Over 80 percent of African American and white students report that their school experience has helped them to work more effectively and get along with members of other races and ethnic groups."

The study also asked students questions about how their high school experiences affected their interest in other democratic or civic activities. The study found that 57 percent of white students, 65 percent of African American students, and 51 percent of other minorities stated that their interest in volunteering in their community had increased. Forty-seven percent of white students, 60 percent of African American students, and 45 percent of other minorities reported that their interest in elections had increased.

Conclusion

Study authors conclude that, while additional comparative research is certainly needed in schools with significantly less diversity, these findings suggest important impacts of desegregated educational environments. A school's diversity can have an effect on educational outcomes and most specifically on willingness to live and work in diverse environments. Diversity has a positive impact on learning, on student attitudes, and on important democratic principles.

These findings could not be more important at this moment in America's history. As Gary Orfield of the Harvard Civil Rights Project put it, "In a society where recent surveys show considerable pessimism about race and growing racial separation on important dimensions, the students in Metropolitan Louisville reported that they felt both well prepared and ready to live and work across racial lines in their urban community. These responses were strikingly positive and consistent across racial lines. If the future ability of the nation's young people to live and work, to know and understand, and to share ideas on very sensitive issues across racial lines are not compelling interests for American communities, it is hard to imagine what are."

The entire report, from which all quotations in this article were drawn, is available on-line at the Harvard Civil Rights Project Web site: www.law.harvard.edu/civilrights.


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Over 80 percent of African American and white students report that their school experience has helped them to work more effectively and get along with members of other races and ethnic groups.

Communication tips
The results of new research can provide a strong news hook, and studies that look at diversity in both higher education and high school are especially interesting to reporters. Diversity and desegregation are powerful issues that are frequently in the news because they are of real interest to Americans. Because so many news stories stress problems with diversity, studies that highlight benefits--and, like this one, have findings that are consistent among racial lines--are somewhat counterintuitive and therefore newsworthy.

Downsizing in the media also means that fewer media outlets have one reporter who covers school systems and another who covers higher education.

Most often outside the largest media markets, just one reporter must cover all education stories. Therefore, stories with hard data that touch on both high school and college are especially appealing. So press hard to get reporter to cover news stories like this one.