Parents’ Attitudes Toward School Diversity

By Anne O'Brien

Do parents value school diversity? The PDK Poll offers insights.

In a recent blog post, LFA Executive Director Rich Long noted the need for tough conversations about hard issues, including race. He wrote that “schools may be one of the few places where we can sit together and learn how to talk about these issues.”

The role that schools play in exposing students to those who don’t think, act or look like them is often cited as a key benefit of public education. Such exposure is thought to be critical to both the future success of students in the global workplace and the functioning of our democracy, as both require the ability to interact with those who are different than oneself.

But is it something the public—and parents in particular—actually value?

Parents’ Preferences on School DiversityGraph showing results of 2017 PDK Poll question on parents' preference for diversity

For the first time in its 49-year history, the PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools asked respondents about school diversity. It found that, all else equal, 70% of parents would prefer for their children to attend a school where the student body is racially diverse. But when parents are asked whether they would accept a longer commute for their children to attend a racially diverse school, they say no—60% would prefer the less diverse, closer school.

The authors note that the poll, taken as a whole, suggests the stated preference for diversity “may reflect a socially desirable answer rather than one on which individuals are fully convinced or willing to act.” While that is certainly possible, I also think that the results might simply indicate a priority.

It seems that the public views a school’s racial diversity as just “nice to have,” rather than critical. Just 55% of parents believe that a racially diverse student body is extremely or very important, with another 18% calling it somewhat important. There are important demographic differences—for example, 72% of black parents call such diversity extremely or very important, compared to 57% of Hispanic parents and 48% of white parents.

When it comes to socioeconomic diversity, the trend is the same, though it starts at a lower point. Sixty-one percent of parents would prefer to send their child to an economically diverse school, but just 20% would accept a longer commute to do so. Again, while there is a preference for this diversity, it isn’t seen as critical—just 45% call economic diversity extremely or very important. Once more, there are demographic differences—about half of families with incomes under $100,000 call economic diversity highly important, compared to 37% of those with income over $100,000.

Diversity and the Learning EnvironmentGraph showing results on 2017 PDK Poll on parents' belief of the impact of diversity on the learning environment

The poll indicates that while there is an acceptance of diversity as “good”—which is the generic message that frequently gets delivered, often tied to vague benefits to society as a whole —the public is unaware of the many real benefits that school integration (both racial and socioeconomic) has for students.

Consider that just 55% of parents say racial diversity improves the learning environment for black and Hispanic students; 51% say it does for white students. And less than half—48%—say having students from different economic backgrounds makes the learning environment better for students with poor families; 41% say the same for middle-income and 42% for higher-income students. Given those beliefs, some of the discrepancy of a claimed value but reluctance to act makes sense: why would a parent inconvenience themselves or their child if they don’t believe it improves the educational experience?

What the Research Says

While the public may believe that diversity doesn’t improve learning environments, the research says otherwise. Decades of studies find that racial and socioeconomic integration are beneficial in many ways—academically, cognitively, socially and emotionally—to students. While much discussion focuses on the benefits of integration for low-income students and students of color (which are significant), these benefits spread throughout the student population, including to students of all races and with families of all income levels. Consider findings (many appearing in peer-reviewed journals, meaning the research had to meet certain standards to be published) that:

  • Racially diverse learning environments have positive impacts on academic achievement for all students
  • Students who attend desegregated schools are less likely to drop out of high school
  • Attending racially diverse schools contributes to improvements for all students (including students of all races and all socioeconomic statuses) in critical thinking, communication, creativity and problem solving
  • Low-income students have better academic outcomes when they attend socioeconomically diverse schools
  • Attending racially diverse schools contributes to greater comfort with, and understanding of the perspectives of, people of diverse backgrounds

Some studies directly tie these findings to differences in school structure (which might include the types of things that PDK Poll respondents envisioned when they heard the term “learning environment”)—for example, high-poverty schools have fewer challenging curricular offerings (such as high-level math and science courses), and high-poverty, high-minority schools have five times as many teachers who don’t meet state certification requirements as low-poverty, low-minority schools do.

These findings—which are not exhaustive—don’t come from just one report. They were drawn from three research reviews on this topic, each of which considered a significant number of sources: the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education’s 2017 School Segregation Then & Now: How to Move Toward a More Perfect Union; the National Coalition on School Diversity’s 2017 Research Brief: The Complementary Benefits of Racial and Socioeconomic Diversity in Schools; and the American Educational Research Association’s 2016 Research Fact Sheet: The Educational Benefits of Diverse Schools and Classrooms for All Students.

What Next?

As those who support diversity in America’s schools look to the future, they have the opportunity to build on the support parents have for diverse schools and send a message that pushes them to act. However, this message might be different than the one they are used to sending. In addition to the idea that diversity is simply good for our society, we would be wise to note the benefits to individuals as well. As we consider what compels parents to act, it is nearly always the best interest of their individual child. We should make a concerted effort to let them know how diverse schools fit into that.

Access the complete results of the PDK Poll at http://pdkpoll.org/. Images from the Poll report.

Look to this space for additional commentary on this issue in the coming weeks.

 

Updated 8/30/17