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Promoting School Equity: Lessons from the Socioeconomic Integration Community of Practice

By Richard Kahlenberg and Peter Cookson

Reducing school segregation—by race and socioeconomic status—is one important ingredient in the effort to fight systemic racism and provide better opportunities across racial and economic lines. Because of the overlap between race and economic status in American society, socioeconomic integration offers a path toward both economic and racial integration in a less legally vulnerable manner than student assignment plans that consider the individual race of students. Between 2018 and 2019, MAEC’s Center for Education Equity convened a community of practice for school districts that wanted to pursue socioeconomic integration or improve their existing integration plans.

In our experience, any district pursuing a socioeconomic integration plan needs to work toward three goals:

  1. Build support to reduce economic and racial segregation in schools

    All students benefit from racially and economically diverse classrooms. A growing number of studies find that “diversity makes us smarter” because classroom discussions are more robust, more interesting, and deeper when students bring different life experiences to the table. Moreover, being in a diverse classroom can impart valuable skills to successfully navigate an increasingly diverse workplace and society. Additionally, socioeconomic integration helps schools avoid the negative effects associated with concentrated school poverty. Economically diverse schools are 22 times as likely to be high performing as high-poverty schools.

    When we presented these ideas to the community of practice, we heard broad agreement with the approach and the data, but the group was most concerned with understanding how the process can be equitable and palatable to the larger community. While robust discussion is welcome, political pushback can make the process divisive.

    This community of practice was also a hands-on, practical group. They focused on how socioeconomic integration can happen, leading us to controlled choice.

  2. Use controlled choice to integrate schools in a politically palatable fashion

    A number of methods exist to integrate schools—district consolidation, two-way bilingual, and others—but in our experience, controlled choice is the most effective. Under the policy, all students rank their choices among various schools, each with a distinctive teaching approach or theme, and school officials honor those choices according to fairness guidelines that ensure all schools are integrated. Lotteries are weighted to ensure that underrepresented groups have full access to schools. Controlled choice builds on the concept of magnet schools—that families may be drawn to a school somewhat further away from their homes because the theme or pedagogy offered will excite their children. But because magnets can sometimes create a new form of inequality—between magnet and regular schools—under controlled choice plans, all schools become magnets. And whereas public school choice programs sometimes only attract the most educationally aware parents, controlled choice universalizes choice, avoiding inequalities that may arise between “choosers” and “non-choosers” because everyone must choose.

    Cambridge, Massachusetts has an excellent track record with controlled choice. Michael Alves, an educational consultant who is a leader in this approach, often shares the following information about Cambridge. It is a district of 7,200 students with 12 elementary schools, four 6-8 upper schools, and one high school. Forty-five percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 60% are students of color. While only 60% of Cambridge parents used public schools prior to the adoption of controlled choice, the proportion increased to between 80-90% of parents after implementing an all-magnet school approach. Now, Cambridge has several more racially integrated schools than when they used race-conscious enrollment criteria.

    Since its inception in the Cambridge Public Schools, the controlled choice model has been implemented in dozens of school districts across the country, from Seattle, Washington, to San Jose, California, to Champaign, Illinois.

    The community of practice we worked with supported the controlled choice approach, but they needed flexibility in implementation. Only pieces of controlled choice could be adopted in some districts, while other areas could consider redistricting. While magnet schools were a part of the equation, they realized that their formula would have to be adapted to fit their community.

  3. Desegregate school buildings with a focus on equity

    Integrating a school is only the first step. Too often, a district will do the good work of diversifying, only to have students segregated again at the classroom level through academic tracking. Honors and AP classes can be dominated by wealthy, White, and Asian students, leaving lower-income, Black, and Latino students in the same population as before integration efforts. Indeed, academic tracking can harm students in lower tracks because they often are taught by less qualified educators, who have lower expectations. Instead of tracking, reduce stratification at the classroom level. Three suggestions from Halley Potter, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, are:

  • Adopt “schoolwide enrichment” programs that provide all students with a gifted and talented curriculum. Pioneered by Joseph Renzulli at the University of Connecticut, the approach calls for school leaders to set aside time for “enrichment clusters” that are based on interests, such as creative writing or building electric circuits, and that are open to students of all abilities. The concept is that students should not be labeled as gifted; rather, all students should have the same opportunities for enrichment.
  • Adopt “embedded honors” programs in middle and high school settings. At schools like High Tech High, while honors classes are open to all students, some students choose to engage in extra assignments to receive honors credits.
  • Make conscious efforts to de-track and diversify AP and IB enrollment. Potter cites Stamford, Connecticut schools as an exemplar of this approach. Black and Hispanic students dramatically increased participation in AP classes and achievement gaps shrunk, not because White and Asian student performance declined, but because Black and Hispanic students performed better.

As school districts struggle with meeting the triple threat of racial inequality, economic inequality, and a health crisis, no single strategy will address all problems. But as the eminent Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson recently noted, efforts to reduce segregation in education (and housing) remain the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.

One large-scale effort to reduce segregation is the Bridges Collaborative, a school integration initiative funded by the Century Foundation. The 2020 cohort of the Bridges Collaborative included the leaders of 27 school districts, 17 charter schools and CMOs, and 13 housing organizations. All stakeholders are committed to promoting racial and socioeconomic integration in their schools and communities, and the result is a strong national community of practice and collective learning.

To bring socioeconomic integration to your district or school, consider MAEC’s resources on the topic:


About the authors

Richard D. Kahlenberg is Director of K–12 Equity and Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation. The author or editor of seventeen books, he has expertise in education, civil rights, and equal opportunity. Kahlenberg has been called “the intellectual father of the economic integration movement” in K–12 schooling and “arguably the nation’s chief proponent of class-based affirmative action in higher education admissions.” Kahlenberg’s articles have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and elsewhere. He has appeared on ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, C-SPAN, MSNBC, and NPR. (Click here for the full bio from The Century Foundation)

Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is a Senior Researcher at the Learning Policy Institute. He co-leads LPI’s Equitable Resources and Access team and provides leadership for several equity initiatives. In addition to teaching sociology at Georgetown University, he co-leads the American Voices Project, a joint research project of Stanford University, Princeton University, and the American Institutes for Research. Cookson began his career as a case worker in New York City and as a teacher in rural Massachusetts. Most recently, he was Managing Director of the think tank Education Sector and founded The Equity Project at the American Institutes for Research. He is the author of 16 books and numerous articles on education and inequality, social stratification, school choice, and 21st-century education. (Click here for full bio from the Learning Policy Institute.)


MAEC is committed to the sharing of information regarding issues of equity in education. The contents of this guide were developed under a grant from the US Department of Education under the Equity Assistance Centers program. However, the contents of this guide do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Department of Education or federal government, generally.


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