Economic diversity raises test scores

Alan Finder (The NY Times) reports on the jump in reading and math test scores in Wake County, NC, a jump that is attributed to economic diversity accomplished by busing.

"Low-income students who have an opportunity to go to middle-class schools are surrounded by peers who have bigger dreams and who are more academically engaged," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about economic integration in schools. "They are surrounded by parents who are more likely to be active in the school. And they are taught by teachers who more likely are highly qualified than the teachers in low-income schools."

Reading through the article, we can see people's values at play: white vs. black, choice vs. quality education, choice vs. busing, success measured by property values and corporate support, economic diversity as a proxy for racial diversity, and so on. We can also wonder whether those with bigger dreams are being influenced by those with "smaller" dreams. We might ask where the teachers in previously low-income schools went? Did they quit to make room for the "highly qualified"? Or, like the students, did they become influenced by the "highly qualified" to raise their "teaching" scores?

However, it's more interesting from a complexity theory perspective of clustering and diversity. Clustering often leads to segregation: people feel more comfortable with what's familiar, and that includes ethnic and racial familiarity. Diversity can lead to creativity and innovation, and as seen here, increased test scores. (It should be remembered that the top scores likely aren't increasing, but the overall scores are due to lower performers achieving more.) In some sense, the fitness of the school ecology is improving through rearranging the system's structure.

Somewhat paradoxically, a central tenet of complexity theory is self-organization with no central control. And yet in this case a central, top-down order has improved the system's fitness. Of course, we don't know how that order came about: whether initiated from the school superintendent or deriving from the input of many stakeholders. Even so, along the lines of Juarrero's enabling constraints, greater complexity results from structure. Thus, on a smaller scale, we might consider how to structure diversity and interaction among different groups in our classrooms.