How a Diverse School Can Make Your Child Smarter

[Diverse students]
@debduca via Twenty20
When our children were young, my wife and I considered a wide range of public and private schools. Some of the public schools featured an amazing diversity of races, ethnicities, and incomes.

As we considered what we’d seen, our conversation often went something like this: “It would be amazing to send our kid to a school like that, but would it be the right thing for our child? Are the academics strong enough there?”1

In retrospect, we were missing an important point. Diversity aids learning in ways we did not know about at the time and many parents don’t know about today. Here’s how.

Diverse groups are better at solving problems

Imagine you are in a room with a small group of people. The group is given a problem to solve and each person is given some of the information — but not all of it — that is needed to find the solution. Getting to the answer will require lots of communication and collaboration.

Now, imagine two scenarios. In the first scenario, all the people in the room are like you with respect to income, race, and political party. In the second scenario, the room is diverse. The mix includes rich and poor, African Americans and whites, Democrats and Republicans.

The research is clear: A diverse group will do better at solving the problem than a homogeneous group. You might think that’s because diversity of backgrounds begets diversity of thinking. A diverse group will be more creative than a homogeneous group.

Diverse schools force students to do more brain work

That’s true, but it’s probably not the biggest factor at play. The more important reality is that the mere presence of diversity forces people to do more cognitive work than they otherwise would.2

Think about it. Whatever your background, it’s easier to be around people like yourself. People who are similar to each other assume that the others in their group know much of what they know and think much of what they think. But as a group gets more diverse, you have to do more work to understand others and explain yourself.

Let’s imagine your family is wealthy and white. You went skiing in Aspen last vacation. Your child goes to a diverse school. He’s sitting next to a kid who has never seen snow and certainly never been to Aspen. Your child can’t assume that his classmate will easily understand his experience. Both children are going to have to work hard to understand each other.

The benefits of having to explain your thinking

This phenomenon shows up to some degree in relation to mathematics ability. If everyone gets all of the day’s math problems, students don’t have to explain their thinking to each other. However, if some of the students are struggling a bit, the ones who have mastered the problems may actually benefit from the process of explaining what they did to the students who struggled.3

None of this is to say that diversity is always beneficial, of course. While your child may experience more interesting conversations in an integrated cafeteria, she may also experience more conflict and distrust. In math class, if the difference in ability between students becomes too great, the higher-performing students will be negatively impacted.

Diversity isn’t inherently more important than the quality of teaching, the breadth of the program, and the strength of the culture. If diversity comes along with too much disorder, your child will indeed suffer.

The point isn’t that a diverse school is the right answer. Rather, as you evaluate your school options, you should know there are cognitive as well as social benefits to your child being in a diverse environment.

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How a Diverse School Can Make Your Child Smarter
  1. Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, has written a whole book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma, based on his research and personal experience with this issue. I recommend the book if you are looking for help finding your way.
  2. Thank you to Columbia Professor Katherine Phillips for the inspiration that led to this piece. See her excellent piece in Scientific American for more insight on how diversity benefits learning and performance.
  3. For a discussion of the nuances of this issue, see this working paper by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby and coauthor Gretchen Weingarth: Taking Race Out of the Equation: School Reassignment and the Structure of Peer Effects.