Diversity in 21st Century Public Education: Facing School Inequities

By Sophia James

With over 10 years’ experience of public service at the state and local level, Sophia James has helped guide significant initiatives and policies that address the coordination and efficiency of education and health services for children and families. Sophia presently serves as an Early Childhood Instructional Associate at the Archdiocese of New York, assisting in the implementation of curriculum, assessments, and professional development, and strengthening of school partnerships across 70-plus parochial schools. She is the founder of Education: Unplugged, a web platform for innovative programs and dialogue in education, as well as an open resource on education initiatives for young children. Sophia currently sits on the executive board of Phi Delta Kappa (NYU Chapter), an international organization for educators, and as former Chair of New York’s Young & Powerful Group, she received a citation for exemplary service to the community and state by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (former New York State Senator). She is a member of the Haitian Roundtable (HRT), a professional organization committed to civic engagement as well as philanthropic endeavors benefiting Haiti, and is also an appointed member of Community Board 8 in Manhattan, serving as Co-Chair of the Technology Committee. Sophia has also trained at the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, a leadership program that seeks to increase the number and influence of women in elected and appointed office in the United States and around the globe. Sophia holds a Master of Science in Educational Psychology from the School of Education, State University at Albany.


Why has it become almost the norm to find public schools across the country with students isolated by race and income? In a modern-day tale of two cities, in virtually every major city in the U.S.,  students of color are more likely than whites to attend public schools shaped by high concentrations of poverty (per an analysis of federal data). The cities experiencing the highest levels of both racial and economic segregation in schools include New Orleans and Dallas in the south, Los Angeles in the west, Chicago in the Midwest, and Philadelphia and New York City on the east coast. 

As we lament this problem across news outlets, the debate continues to increase over how to integrate schools. In June 6, 2017, the New York City Department of Education released a plan to stimulate diversity in its schools. The plan, titled Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools, presented three focal goals: (1) to increase racial representativeness in public schools; (2) to decrease economic stratification of public schools; and (3) to increase the number of NYC DOE schools that are inclusive on the bases of language, heritage, ability status, and housing status. A report from the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University (NYU), “Separate and Unequal” suggests there is modest benefit for vulnerable students attending the most diverse schools when comparing ELA and math test scores and four-year high school graduation rates. The report’s key findings highlight that students attending the most diverse high schools were slightly more likely to graduate on-time than their peers attending the least diverse schools; less economically advantaged students in particular seemed to benefit from attending the most diverse high schools. Diversity along lines of race and socioeconomic status seemed to slightly affect achievement gaps (ie, opportunity gaps), while hyper-segregation seemed to greatly exacerbate them (ie, opportunity barrier).

Research already confirms wide-ranging benefits for students in racially and socioeconomically integrated schools, including stronger test scores, increased college attendance, and improved critical-thinking skills. “If you successfully bring these resources to high-poverty schools, it is possible to produce strong results for kids—and we know examples of excellent high-poverty schools that are doing that,” according to Halley Potter, a fellow at Century Foundation. The most common method listed by school districts to achieve integration is the redrawing of neighborhood school boundaries, seen as a controversial approach. Much of the pushback, like school segregation, cuts along racial and class lines. One illustration of the inherent challenges is seen in the neighborhoods of the Upper West Side and Brooklyn, where parents oppose school boundary changes that would bring racial and socioeconomic integration.


Experts say high levels of concentrated poverty in schools are symptomatic of broader issues with segregation, housing, and transportation. For that reason, it would take a joint effort among school and government officials to tackle poverty and create more opportunity in several policy areas. “We're talking about housing patterns, transportation patterns, commercial development. There's lots of stuff that ultimately influences where people choose to or can live,” said Kent McGuire, the president of the Southern Education Foundation, and the former assistant secretary of the Department of Education during the Clinton Administration. 

The issue [of diversity] deserves greater emphasis and attention with students of color now a majority of the public school population and whites gentrifying urban neighborhoods of color, says Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Studies show racially integrated schools can improve education for students of all races and accomplish one immeasurable advantage: helping youth challenge stereotypes and their implicit biases toward people of different races and ethnicities. But fully realizing this goal requires teachers who are trained in facilitating courageous conversations about race, said Wells, and skilled in racially and culturally relevant teaching practices. If education leaders want to confront and undo severe racial inequities in schools and school systems, they must create opportunities for teachers and staff to engage in productive discussions about questions that many of them will consider uncomfortable.  Given how complex and how deeply felt Americans’ beliefs about race and equity are, racially sensitive topics cannot be addressed effectively through one-time workshops. If the intention is to disrupt the status quo, school leaders should have a plan and skills to shift the momentum and energy toward learning. To do this work effectively, school and district leaders need to study, honor, and understand the complexities of both individual experiences and the long-standing history, biases, and deep-seated effect of inequities in American education.


Per NYU’s report, the condition of hyper-segregation influences student outcomes, limiting access to opportunity for the most vulnerable students. The real work of educational equity must involve expanding opportunity because the opposite of segregation is not integration; the opposite of segregation is access. Segregated schools limit access to opportunities for less economically advantaged students and students of color. To achieve equity, we must address a very frank question—a question that deals with not only how to expand diversity, but importantly how to expand opportunity. 

Several recommendations to tackle school inequities include:

  • Learning in integrated settings can enhance students’ leadership skills.
  • Integrating schools leads to more equitable access to important resources such as structural facilities, highly qualified teachers, challenging courses, private and public funding, and social and cultural capital.
  • Coordinate strategies to encourage diversity. Cities must enlist allies from multiple community agencies to coordinate strategies to promote diversity while simultaneously discouraging segregation.  
  • Reframe education. The reframing of education must imagine diversity as something beyond bodies, and proliferates the properties of knowing and being inclusive of diverse student backgrounds.
  • Recruit and retain highly effective teachers of color. A plan to desegregate NYC schools must be imagined alongside a plan to promote diversity among the NYC teacher workforce. This includes the hiring of culturally competent educators mixed with a continued effort to provide ongoing development and assessment of teacher cultural competency, using cultural competence measures, inventories, scales, and other data systems.  


Feb 2016. School Integration Is Making a Comeback as Research Documents Its Benefits. Teachers College, Columbia University

Anderson, Melinda D. (Feb 2016). The Promise of Integrated Schools. The Atlantic

Boschima, Jane (Mar 2016). Separate and Still Unequal. The Atlantic

Kirkland, David & Sanzone, Joy (Oct 2017). Separate and Unequal: A Comparison of Student Outcomes in New York City’s Most and Least Diverse Schools. The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at NYU Steinhardt.

Ngounou, Gislaine & Gutierrez, Nancy (Nov 2017). Learning to lead for racial equity. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (3), 37-41.

Potter, Halley, Quick, Kimberly & Davies, Elizabeth (Feb 2016). A New Wave of School Integration. The Century Foundation

Veiga, Christina (Dec 2017). ‘Be bold’: Advocates, lawmakers call on New York City to go further on school integration. Chalkbeat

Wells Stuart, Amy, Fox, Lauren & Cordova-Cobo, Diana (Feb 2016). How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students. The Century Foundation