Guest Column

Our Kids Need a Diversity Lesson. Will the Court Allow It?

by Marc F. Bernstein

As the U.S. Supreme Court decides two major cases this spring involving the use of race in assigning students to public schools within a district, it will determine how well children in the district I serve will fare in the competitive global economy for decades to come.

This statement may seem surprising. Long Island, the geographic area where my school district of 4,600 students is located, has a preponderance of mostly white school systems, where mixing students by race isn't even an option. But a ruling against using race as a factor actually could put Long Island students and innumerable other students across the country at a severe disadvantage in the emerging business world.

The cases in question, involving Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., are follow-ups to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation ruling. The specific issue before the court is whether the school districts can take account of students' races to ensure ethnic balance among the districts' schools. But the implications are far broader.

Sterile Experiences
The decision's direct consequences on Long Island are likely to be limited because school districts are relatively small, as opposed to the city districts in the two court cases, and only about half the districts have any degree of racial diversity. Still, the interpretation of the high court's opinion by school officials and lower courts could affect significant educational decisions in an increasing number of districts across the country, especially given the growing non-white student population in schools in most corners of the country.

For example, should schools be permitted to "balance" 3rd-grade classes in terms of boys and girls or students of different races or ethnicities? Can teachers "mix" small learning groups to include students from different backgrounds? Can preference be given to certain students with regard to entrance into elective programs when all other considerations are equal? Can schools structure student-to-student "mentoring" experiences that encourage students of different cultures to interact for the benefit of both, or will this, too, be prohibited?

If the answer is no to these everyday school situations, our children's experiences will be sterile in terms of the variety of attitudes and cultures students from different backgrounds bring to their school lives. Schools can provide these experiences by organizing classes with student diversity in mind, by using small learning groups with boys and girls of different races and ethnicities, and by encouraging all students to participate in clubs and sports.

The value of diversity extends beyond the "academic." It's also an issue of economics. The message in recent studies by business organizations is clear: Unless students learn to work together, they will be ill-prepared to enter the competitive global economy, where, with the majority of the economically expanding world being non-Caucasian, students will have to relate to people from different backgrounds.

A 2004 RAND report, "The 21st Century at Work: Forces Shaping the Future Workforce and Workplace in the United States," concludes that "valued skills include ... abstract reasoning, problem solving, communication and collaboration." The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, in its March 2006 study titled "Results That Matter: 21st Century Skills and High School Reform," identified six sets of key elements of 21st century learning, specifically naming social responsibility and collaboration, communication and people skills as absolutely necessary.

A recent TIME magazine cover story (Dec. 18, 2006) perhaps says it best: "A yawning chasm separates the world inside the schoolhouse from the world outside," arguing that what's required is "putting a greater emphasis on teaching kids to collaborate and solve problems in small groups." I would add, "diverse small groups."

The ability to communicate with and learn from people different from oneself results from having both structured and informal experiences over extended periods. While parents always will be the primary teachers of respect for others, certain real-life experiences can best be gained in school.

We know that efforts at mixing can prove successful, as reported by the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University. Its study of the Cambridge, Mass., school district found students had an increased "level of understanding of diverse points of view" and an enhanced "desire to interact with people of different backgrounds in the future."

Appreciating Differences
This seemingly esoteric issue was made real to me last month when I discussed with my son his recent business trip to China. He was fortunate to have attended a Long Island school district that had a modicum of racial diversity and promoted diverse racial educational settings.

When I asked what 21st-century skills he found most important in his business dealings, he said getting along with people who are culturally different and not being judgmental of their customs.

That is a lesson that could well be learned by school districts everywhere, unless the Supreme Court precludes it.

Marc Bernstein is superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District, 1 Kent Road, Valley Stream, NY 11580. E-mail: bernstem@vschsd.org. He based this column on an earlier op-ed he wrote for Newsday.