The Myth of School Diversity

I was traveling on the 6 train this morning, which runs up the East Side of Manhattan. I got on at Broadway/Lafayette, and because it was rush-hour, the car was crowded, but more crowded than usual. On the train were a gaggle of middle-schoolers who were having themselves a good old time, and it did not escape anybody’s notice that they all happened to be Asian. This would not be surprising as the 6 train does run right through Chinatown. But observing them got me to thinking about diversity in schools.

Stuyvesant High School, one of the most selective high schools in the city, is 72% Asian. As I watched these “yutes,” I knew that a good number of them would be attending Stuyvesant at some point in the future, and it got me thinking about the recent report that New York City has among the most segregated schools in the United States. These students live in a very tight-knit community where families share the same language, the same culture and the same ideas about what a “good” education looks like. They’ve “gamed” the Stuyvesant admissions test by setting up cram schools in their community, and no doubt every one of these students have friends or relatives who went to Stuy and their parents no doubt aspire to have them attend the same school. They know their children will be among other children like themselves, and they no doubt know the teachers and administrations who work there.

With 72% of the school populated by Asian students, it may appear that Stuy is not a very “diverse” school. This belies the fact that being “Asian” could mean many things: when we label someone as Asian, we could be talking about someone from China, Japan, Korea, India or Pakistan as well as the incredible number of islands in the Pacific Ocean, each of which has it’s own distinct language and culture. It also belies the fact that Asians can be first, second or third generation, or that they could be trans-racially and/or trans-nationally adopted. They could be Buddhist, Hindi, Muslim, Christian and, yes, even Jewish. This is not to mention the fact that there is economic diversity within the community, which includes those who live in the poverty that is found in sections of Chinatown to those who commute in from the wealthy suburbs of Long Island. Beneath the “visual” homogeneity of Stuyvesant High School lies a vast mosaic of diversity that remains invisible.

My daughter, who is now 22 years old, was never interested in attending Stuyvesant, and none of her friends were interested either. She attended a fairly high performing middle school, and her intention was to attend a high school that would prepare her for college. However, her middle school drew children who were interested in the arts; the school had an excellent reputation for it’s photography, music, drama and dance program, and many of the students went on to attend the best schools in the city which focused on performing and visual arts.

The high school my daughter attended, the Beacon School, appeared to have a very diverse population: during her time at Beacon, my daughter regularly brought home friends who were from all parts of the city and from many ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds. However, beneath this visible “diversity,” there was quite a bit of homogeneity: the families all appreciated the fact that Beacon was a very progressively minded school that sent its students to places like Cuba and post-Katrina New Orleans in the name of social justice. I can’t imagine there would be many parents with strong conservative political views who would be comfortable sending their child to Beacon. At the same time, if you were deeply interested in science or math, Beacon wouldn’t be a good place to spend your high school years. While the sciences were taught, there was no push for the kind of high-flying research projects that are found at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

It’s very interesting watching how diversity has become the new buzzword in the field of education: every private school website has a page about “diversity” in their school, which touts the fact that the school is committed to having a range of students in their classes, but what constitutes diversity is quite elastic. A private school may have “visual” diversity in that there are students of different skin color, but the reality is that they are quite homogenous in that the families belong to the same economic class. On the other hand, we can somehow assemble a school of students in different economic classes like Stuyvesant, where 41% of the students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunch, yet it appears to be incredibly homogenous in the vast majority come from Asian backgrounds.

The problem is that homogeneity occurs for many reasons that have nothing to do with racism, classism or any of the other type of discrimination. In many schools, segregation comes about as a result of geography: I work in a school in the South Bronx once a week. it is 60% Hispanic and 40% Black, which makes it seem like a very homogeneous population. But as we all know, there is considerable diversity within the Hispanic population, which means we have children from the Caribbean Islands, including the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, or North America, Central America or South America. The Black students come from all over Africa: some are Senegalese, others are from Somalia, and still others are from Ghana, Ethiopia and Eritrea. But there’s considerable homogeneity here: the students all within walking distance from the school, and they are all poor. Very poor.

My conclusion is this: schools are inherently segregated places. This is while families want their children to attend schools with diverse populations, they also want their children to be around others who have similar values to their own, which leads to homogeneity. They may feel that their children should be around other children who share the same cultural or linguistic background, they may want their children to go to school with the same families who live in their neighborhood, they may have the same “aspirational values,” or, in the most extreme scenarios, they want their children to only associate with those who share the same socio-economic class, the same religious affiliation or the same political philosophies. At the same time, consideration must be given to the school’s environment (“no excuses” discipline vs. caring culture), or its reputation for arts or sciences.

From what I ┬ácan conclude after this subway ride up the East Side of Manhattan (all the Asian middle schoolers got off at 59th street, btw), schools are, by their nature, homogenous, and the solutions we’ve tried in the past have not moved the needle into more diverse territory. In fact, they have only made schools more segregated in one way or another: “magnet schools” segregate children according to their interests, “gifted and talented” programs segregate children according to their “measured intelligence” (which is highly unstable), and charter schools are well known to exclude those with learning disabilities and limited English proficiency (their “no excuses” discipline systems and almost pathological focus on standardized test prep also keep away those with progressive educational philosophies.) Parochial schools segregate children according to religious affiliation (and even degree of that affiliation), and expensive private schools segregate children according to socio-economic status.

In the end, I have no answers, only an observation and a conclusion. But that does not mean there is no hope: just because schools cannot be diverse does not mean they should not be diverse. At the same time, we have to put a lot more thought into what is meant by diversity, why it is important and what can be done about it.


About rmberkman

This blog is the sole musings of one Robert M. Berkman, an educator who has taught math, science and technology for the past 30 years in New York. You can react to all his posts by emailing him at
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2 Responses to The Myth of School Diversity

  1. Maths fan says:

    Great post. Agreed true diversity is a difficult thing to achieve
    You say that segregation by geography has nothing to do with racism, classosm and discrimination, but historically it has everything to do with it. Constructs of race and class are associated with places and spaces. Thats why they are very poor it is all linked, and schools are usually a mirror of society in general.

    • rmberkman says:

      I didn’t say it had nothing to do with racism, classism and discrimination, but that we have to drill a little deeper when we look at what causes school segregation. I would like to see schools be more diverse places, but I don’t know if we have the political will to create such a massive restructuring of how people live in the United States. Many people prefer to have their kids attend schools which are in their neighborhoods, and many people prefer to live in neighborhoods that have the goods and services they want. One of the reasons we like living in cities is that we don’t have to travel far to do what we need to do.

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