To Promote Diversity, Schools Should Make Students Sit Together

This month’s Teacher Diversity Matters report by the Center for American Progress has added to the growing belief that a racially diverse student body and faculty have positive effects on various educational outcomes for students. Children need to learn how to adapt and interact within a diverse environment. They benefit from broad perspectives and new opinions. 

A more pressing concern for policymakers and teachers alike is how to effectively capture and channel the positive influences from diversity. Primarily, does enforcing intermingling and cross-ethnic communication help, hinder, or bring no net change to diversification efforts?

Some argue that encouraging intermingling like forcing primary schoolers of different ethnicities to sit together might do more harm than good. Some school districts, with good intentions, have opted to segregate non-English speakers in order to increase their support system and personalize their learning experience. Others suggest that designated classroom interactions will have little effect since such intermingling cannot be pursued outside of school.

Yet enforcing multi-ethnic mixing has serious implications for the psychological development of a new generation, and it just may be one solution for increasing inadequate performance levels.

How? One serious hindrance to performance for certain groups of individuals, from women to minorities, is what social psychologists like Harvard’s Claude Steele deem the stereotype threat: a quantifiable devaluation in performance of some task due to pressure from the belief that others have prejudged us and will make future judgments based on these beliefs and not on individual capabilities.

Steele suggests that social contingencies affect things as important as performance on standardized tests and in the classroom, memory capacity, and athletic performance. For instance, a woman in the sciences will forever be encumbered by the additional weight of the threat; in the back of her mind she believes that if she slips up, her mostly male peers and faculty will conclude that women are indeed inherently less capable in math and science. The same could be said for African-American students in a mostly white classroom.

By encouraging young, multi-ethnic students to sit together every day, to team them up, to have assigned seating at lunch, and give them joint projects, this generation of teachers may potentially issue a fatal blow to the threat before it has materialized as an actual and long-lasting hindrance to performance. If impressionable young students are constantly forced into interactions with others, they will be more likely to see similarities and less likely to unquestioningly internalize otherwise common prejudices. This in turn could help ensure their own fully-realized performance if they believe others are less like to harbor such prejudice towards them.

The imperative to advance this line of research is overwhelming. The cultural dynamics of U.S. classrooms, businesses, communities, and politics are changing forever due to expanding immigration and interethnic familial ties. Half of the growth in the total U.S. population between 2000 and 2010 was due to the increase in the ethnic Hispanic population. Additionally, the Asian population grew faster than any other major race group; the single-race Asian population alone expanded by 43%. Within the Asian population, South Asians led all Asian groups in growth due to the substantial migration of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, although Chinese Americans remain the most populous.  

The implications going forward are clear: the education system faces serious, albeit unavoidable, challenges in addressing diversity. Yet, encouraging and channeling the benefits of such bountiful diversity may be the source of one of the American school system's greatest untapped strengths. 

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy

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Elizabeth Laferriere

Elizabeth Laferriere is the Legislative Director at the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women. Her research and professional interests include women’s equal right to work, political participation, and social justice, as well as US foreign policy toward South and Southeast Asia. Ms. Laferriere received her MPP in Public Policy from Georgetown University, where she studied international policy as the Wellesley College Margaret Freeman Bowers Graduate Fellow. She spent an exchange semester at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. She received her BA in South Asian Studies and History from Wellesley College, where she graduated with honors in 2010.

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