My wife had her 20th high school reunion recently. She attended a large public high school noted then, as now, for the diversity of its student body. But attendees of the reunion itself were not nearly as diverse as the student body had been 20 years earlier. This, she and her peers readily agreed, was a shame.
What would account for the difference? My completely unresearched guess is that it has a lot to do with academic proficiency. At this high school today, recent School Accountability Reports show black and Hispanic students with proficiency rates over 40 percentile points behind their white classmates. Better academic preparation in high school leads to more post-secondary education, increased professional opportunities and higher income.
I would expect that students who are not proficient by graduation don’t pursue additional education and often end up in menial and blue-collar jobs. And I think people with lower incomes, educational levels, and professional status are far less likely to attend their high school reunions. The proficiency rate of the high school’s black and Hispanic students is currently under 50% (for white students it is 90%).
My bias here is that I have long thought we measure diversity the wrong way. We measure (and praise) a school’s diversity based on population, not on achievement. We measure diversity only by the front door –not the AP classrooms, the honor roll, or the college acceptance list.
Would the reunion participants have been more diverse at a school where everyone was at the same level of academic proficiency? I’m betting they would. But we persist in praising schools for the most base kind of diversity, with little acknowledgment of the different futures that face students once they leave school grounds.
I also believe the benefits of a diverse student body accrue disproportionally to the students who are academically proficient. Attending a diverse high school and taking that experience off to college and into the professional (and increasingly multi-cultural) work force is a distinct and powerful advantage. Attending a diverse high school and taking that experience not to college but into a low-wage service industry probably provides not much of an advantage at all.
At my wife’s high school — as with most other large public high schools — a far higher percentage of white students are proficient. So here is the bitter irony: as long as the achievement gap persists, what generally passes for (and is praised as) diversity ends up providing additional benefits to a greater percentage of white students than to their black and Hispanic peers.
Diversity is always a tender topic, but I’m interested in alternative explanations and all responses.