The United States Commission on Civil Rights has just issued a major report, The Benefits of Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Elementary and Secondary Education. The Commission reached a startling conclusion: "there is little evidence that racial and ethnic diversity in elementary and secondary schools results in significant improvement in academic performance."
The 109-page report summarizes the work of a panel of experts that came together July 28, 2006 to address the relation between ethnic diversity and student performance. Enhancing students' academic performance has been a central rationalization for over 25 years for programs that aim to increase the "diversity" of schoolrooms. Until recently, however, experts have been unwilling to test the assumption that greater diversity means better academic performance.
To see the importance of this report, consider that in his new memoir, My Grandfather's Son, Justice Clarence Thomas recalls that around 1981 when he served as assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education, he asked his staff for "any studies that compared the academic performance of black students in integrated primary and secondary school with black students in segregated or predominantly black schools. None was forthcoming, and when I pursued the matter, a staffer told me none existed." (p. 143)
In other words, in the 27 years that had passed since the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, no one had bothered to check whether the central premise of that decision was in fact accurate. In Brown, the Court put a legal end to state-sponsored segregated schools on the grounds that separate education for blacks caused them to feel psychologically inferior and thus to perform poorly in their studies. The Supreme Court cited the speculative work of social scientists to reach that conclusion, but as more and more schools de-segregated, it would have been relatively easy to find out whether this argument could be substantiated.
No doubt one reason why no one bothered to investigate the relation between classroom diversity and student performance is that no serious researcher wished to challenge the outcome of Brown. But the absence of data allowed the Brown decision to be hi-jacked for new purposes. The Court's aim in Brown had been to end legally enforced segregation in schools, and in doing so it put to rest the old "separate but equal" justification for racial segregation. It succeeded, but it also laid the basis for a new idea that "racial balance" is so important to education that it should be pursued even in the absence of laws or policies that produced segregated schools.
Thomas has criticized the Court's opinion in Brown for promulgating the theory that same-race schools induce psychological inferiority. According to Thomas, the Court could just as well have found that government-sponsored segregation of schools was unconstitutional on the straightforward recognition that the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause forbids such policies. By introducing the idea that black schools are inherently stigmatizing, even if predominantly black enrollment is the result of personal choice rather than government restriction, the Court perpetuated an idea that continues to trouble the nation.
The National Association of Scholars strongly endorses Justice Thomas's analysis. The Fourteenth Amendment provided fully adequate grounds to strike down state-sponsored segregation in the nation's schools.
This year's Supreme Court decisions in the Seattle and Louisville cases show the Supreme Court is still wrestling with the Brown legacy. In those cases, school districts, which were not legally segregated, attempted to use the idea of "diversity" to justify assigning students by race to achieve particular racial compositions in certain schools. The majority of a sharply divided Court ruled against the school districts, but both sides claimed that their views were consonant with Brown.
Hence the importance of the new report from the U.S Commission on Civil Rights. Finally, more than fifty years after Brown, we have a considerable body of actual data that answers the question: "Does racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom enhance student achievement?" And the answer is a sobering "no."
It would be foolish to think that this report is the last word on the subject. Diversity advocates have a great deal invested in their belief in the education-enhancing power of diversity. The concept has an almost religious aura with many educators and public officials, and they will not easily accept data or analysis that cuts against their dogmatic commitment to the idea. In that light, we can expect vigorous debate that might initially sound like the same old debate.
But it won't be. The difference is that we now have some hard facts to take into account.