London headteacher David Levin is absolutely right to identify racial, ethnic and class segregation as a problem the British education system ought to address. But his recent comments in favour of American-style "bussing" of poor children are far too blithe. Bussing has a problematic history, and though most American school districts have abandoned the practice, those that have stuck with it offer some important lessons as we think through how to best ensure that more children — white and non-white; poor and affluent — can enjoy the benefits of attending culturally diverse schools.
Here in the US, we've struggled with school segregation since the founding of the republic. National exams show the maths and reading scores of black children increased most rapidly during the decades after the civil rights movement, the 1970s and 1980s, when courts required previously all-white schools to enroll black students. But that trend prompted a backlash as vociferous as any in American political history. White parents resisted integration — sometimes resorting to outright violence targeting buses of black children, but more typically simply enrolling their own kids in private schools or moving to far-flung, lilywhite suburbs. Meanwhile, many minority parents resented that their children were being asked to bear the brunt of desegregation, taking long bus rides to schools where few teachers or administrators were familiar with non-white neighbourhoods and cultures.
At a 1980 presidential campaign stop, Ronald Reagan claimed that bussing "takes innocent children out of the neighbourhood school and makes them pawns in a social experiment that nobody wants". Since then, conservative judges appointed by Reagan and other Republicans have consistently overturned school desegregation orders. In 2007, the supreme court capped this shift by declaring it illegal for school districts to consider race as a factor when assigning students to schools. Suddenly, cities from North Carolina to Kentucky to Washington had to revise their school desegregation methods, considering class instead of race, for example. Some districts have abandoned integration efforts altogether.
Is school desegregation worth the legal and political heavy lifting? Since the early 1990s, American education reformers have been launching "no excuses" charter schools with the goal of demonstrating that even high-poverty, 100% black or Latino schools can be orderly and achieve high scores on standardised tests. Though there are far too few seats in well-regarded charter schools to serve all the poor children currently stuck in segregated, under-performing classrooms, the excellent track record of segregated charters like those in the KIPP network has undermined the American left's long-held commitment — no matter how quixotic — to widespread school integration.
But there is good reason not to give up on the dream of truly diverse, integrated classrooms. Research from the state of Maryland shows that children who grow up in public housing yet attend predominantly middle-class schools score higher on achievement tests than similar public housing kids who attend schools serving a mostly high-poverty population. Sociologist Amy Stuart Wells of Columbia University has demonstrated that both white and non-white graduates of integrated high schools feel committed in adulthood to progressive ideals such as diversity, equality and communication across cultural differences. While any school can preach liberal values, there is nothing like spending hours in the classroom, day in and day out, with children from families quite different from one's own.
Some white and affluent parents worry their own children's learning will be hurt by attending integrated schools, but this is not generally the case. The key is that classrooms ought to be balanced, with only about half of children living in poverty; if two-thirds of a teacher's students are dealing with problems such as hunger, subpar housing or a parent's unemployment, you can bet that teacher will spend time on issues other than reading, writing and arithmetic.
Most parents prefer their children to attend schools relatively close to home, so not every American or British city has a diverse enough population to make desegregation feasible (that's why integrative housing policy is at least as important as education policy when we think about how to desegregate schools). But some American school desegregation programmes have survived the anti-bussing backlash, and their successes are worth replicating. Cities like Hartford, Connecticut and Milwaukee, Wisconsin maintain popular voluntary bussing programmes, in which high-performing, themed "magnet" schools are located in central urban neighbourhoods. Suburban students are eligible to enroll in these magnets, and thousands across the country choose to do so. Each seat that then opens up in the suburban child's stable, typically majority-white school is given to an urban, usually non-white student, who volunteers to take the bus to get there.
The racially diverse town where I grew up, Ossining, New York, uses another creative approach. In 1981 each of three neighbourhood elementary schools became town-wide schools, one serving kindergarten and first grade; one serving second and third grade; and one serving fourth and fifth grade. The typical Ossining child walks or is driven to school for two years, and is bussed for the remaining four; all students attend the same middle and high school. This system means that no one racial group bears the burdens of desegregation alone, despite the reality of racially segregated housing within the town's borders. More recently, many in the charter school movement have come to re-examine the belief that school segregation doesn't matter. A new generation of charter schools, from Brooklyn to Atlanta to Rhode Island, are opening in transitional neighbourhoods, with the explicit goal of attracting racially and socioeconomically diverse student bodies.
All of these methods could work well in a large, diverse region like London and its suburbs. The key is to think beyond simple bussing of poor children to affluent children's schools; history shows that both socially and politically, that tactic rarely works.