Abby Cobb//EDST 240
What Does it Take to Integrate?
The Effects of Non-Cognitive Skills and White Privilege on School Integration
“Desegregation is different than integration.” This phrase has been parried around in educational sociology for years, with the implication that the United States not fully integrated. The problem encompasses the groups that have been separated for so long, both by law and by culture, become fully physically, emotionally, and intellectually integrated. In the domain of education reform, the concept of social-emotional learning—the process by which individuals acquire and apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions—has gained attention recently as a means by which school can both elevate academic performance as well as help students with emotional and social issues in the classroom (CASEL, 2015). However, in much the same way the achievement gap has persisted in education, according to some researchers, there also appears to be a gap in social-emotional competencies (Lareau, 2003). If this is the case, can the use of social-emotional learning initiatives be viewed as a powerful tool to promote integration in education? Or is white privilege the mechanism holding education back from its potential for full integration? In this view, it could be the ingrained white privilege apparent in American society that is preventing educational institutions from accepting and implementing successful integration initiatives. Moreover, if neither of these instruments is the unequivocal answer to integration, which is the ultimate conclusion, then how can our understanding of both contribute to a general understanding of the many aspects involved in school integration.
Desegregation versus Integration
What is the difference between desegregation and integration? Some individuals use these terms synonymously, even in the field of psychology; however, their meanings are quite different (Mausner, 1961). Desegregation is the process by which a minority group is given equal access to a facility, such as a public school (Mausner, 1961). Integration is the psychological change in which a population is able to live together and remove the weight of generations of bias and prejudice (Mausner, 1961). While these definitions might only be subtly different, the real-world differences between segregation and integration are staggering. To illuminate this difference, one need not look any further than the American public school system.
Since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, segregation in public schools in the United States has either increased substantially or changed little, depending on the measure used (Reardon and Owens, 2014). Either way, there has been little progress since the 1950s, with many students still learning in segregated schools. Even Hartford, a city that has spent years debating the importance and implementation of integration, has not achieved racial integration (Eaton, 2008). Despite the New York Times highlighting Hartford’s 47.5% integration rate as an enviable goal for other cities, it is still represents that less than 50% of Hartford students are learning in integrated schools (2015). After the initial Sheff v. O’Neill ruling in 1989, Hartford continues to struggle to physically integrate students (Eaton, 2008). And while Hartford and many other cities grapple with the physical integration of their students, educators haven’t even begun to grapple with the challenge of integrating students emotionally and socially. Black students continue to feel unaccepted by white classmates and unrepresented in their school, and white students typically complain about physical attacks by blacks or complain or disruptive behavior (Patchen, 1982). Not to overshadow the important work of simply integrating students physically, but this paper will try to illuminate some of the factors involved in the even more nuanced problem of integrating students psychologically.
The Achievement Gap
The achievement gap is a well-known problem in American education. However, the relatively new non-cognitive gap is also important when studying student outcomes. The non-cognitive gap is broadly defined as all traits that are independent of purely cognitive knowledge, such as tenacity, grit, and perseverance (Heckman and Rubinstein, 2001). As race is often correlated with socioeconomic status (SES), current data suggests students of low SES status, who often are African-American, often fall in the lower percentiles of achievement. Moreover, this same population anecdotally lacks the non-cognitive skills to navigate formal schooling (Lareau, 2003), leaving them disadvantaged both academically and socially. Thus, for students raised in poverty, their ability to develop cognitive and non-cognitive skills is compromised, limiting both their academic and social development. The first step for equitable implementation of integrative practices is widespread acknowledgment that achievement in school relies on both academic, but also on non-cognitive skills. Taken together, educators and policymakers can work not only to fix the achievement gap, but also to address the equally important non-cognitive gap.
Before beginning, a point of clarification needs to be highlighted. As mentioned in this paper, the “achievement gap” should be used synonymously with the “opportunity gap.” This distinction often goes unspoken; however, it is important to note in this context, because performance differences between student groups, especially based on race, should never be attributed to innate personality or racial differences. Rather, they should always be ascribed to the advantages afforded by higher SES, including adequate medical care, nutrition, and housing, which are all factors that affect student academic, social, and emotional development. The cognitive achievement gap and non-cognitive gap are not matters of race, but matters of income and opportunity, where race is often crudely used as a proxy for socioeconomic status. Thus, when the achievement gap is mentioned in this paper, it refers to the differences in low and high SES student performance based on differential opportunities, not based on differential abilities.
Students of low SES are often disadvantaged in their access to opportunities their peers of higher SES take for granted. For example, they are less likely to see a dentist, be read to every day, be enrolled in a prekindergarten program, have three nutritious meals daily, live in a safe neighborhood, etc. (Ravitch, 2013). These societal inequities are unique to low SES students, and they impede their learning throughout their lifetime. Moreover, even when these students enter formal schooling, they still face obstacles to success. The achievement gap documents the extent to which subsets of students are negatively affected academically due to structural inequalities apparent in our society. Further, certain educational practices, such as standardized testing and tracking, can exacerbate the achievement gap by reproducing societal inequality.
Closing the cognitive achievement gap has been a policy goal of legislators for the past decade (Ravitch, 2013). However, the gap remains due to the continual improvement of standardized test scores for students of all races and SES levels (Ravitch, 2013), as well as a cultural shift from racial inequality to inequality based on SES (Reardon, 2011). In the recent past, segregation in American education limited the opportunities of black students compared to those of their white counterparts (Porter, 2015). This inequality bred the black-white achievement gap that serves as the titular head of the achievement gap in the United States. While this achievement gap has persisted through the decades, it is now interwoven with an achievement gap based on SES (Reardon, 2011), leading to wide disparities between students based both on race and SES.
Even though black fourth-graders outperform white fourth-graders from only a generation ago, the racial achievement gap remains due to the continued average performance of Caucasian students (Ravitch, 2013). If, over the past 50 years, white achievement had remained stagnant or if black student achievement had made greater gains, the achievement gap would currently be much smaller, possibly nonexistent. However, because white achievement has improved at a similar rate as black achievement, the achievement gap continues to persist, with an average black student performing better than only 25 percent of white students (Ravitch, 2013). Moreover, the income achievement gap, defined as the income difference between a child from a family at the 90th percentile of the family income distribution and a child from a family at the 10th percentile, is now nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap (Reardon, 2011). Fifty years ago, the black-white gap was 1.5 to 2 times as large as the income gap; however, that pattern has been reversed, with the income achievement gap now considerably larger than the black-white gap.
While these gaps are somewhat separate in their specific scope, they are critically intertwined, because race and SES are highly correlated in the United States (Caldas and Bankston, 1997). Thus, it appears that students of low SES, who are often black, are disadvantaged when it comes to academic achievement. Though there are black students who outperform their white counterparts, on average, it is apparent that race and SES crucially impact the achievement gap (Rothstein, 2004). There are many explanations for these disparities, with research suggesting that as standardized test scores become more important, high SES families may be increasingly likely to invest in improving their children’s scores (Reardon, 2011). Additionally, cultural perceptions of the role of parents have changed throughout the twentieth century, emphasizing an increased focus on early-childhood cognitive and psychological development, which has led many parents with resources to invest more in their young children’s development (Reardon, 2011). These interpretations suggest that the achievement gap could be critically dependent on factors outside of formal school, and, moreover, formal schooling might be exacerbating structural inequalities that lead to the achievement gap.
The achievement gap encompasses both effects of the individual student and their background as well as effects of the educational system as a whole. In theory, education should function to provide educational opportunities to all students equally, normalizing disparities between individual students. However, schools often rely on practices, such as tracking or standardized testing, that exacerbate existing social inequalities. Despite good intentions, these structures are what lead to the most prevalent forms of inequality perpetuation in our school system. For example, it has been found that variation in standardized tests scores fluctuates across SES and that these disparities continue through college admissions tests (Grodsky, Warren, and Felts, 2008). Additionally, tracking has been found to affect effort in school, with students in higher tracks exerting more effort (Carbonaro, 2005). In these cases, educational practices rely on measures that reflect social inequalities and often reproduce them.
Taken together, differences in race and SES correlate highly with students’ success in schools. Students of higher SES are often the students who those who can afford “private preschool or the many enrichment opportunities — extra lessons, tutors, music and art, elite sports teams” (Porter, 2015). Further, children from families of low SES are already a year behind in both reading and math when entering formal schooling, compared to students with parents that graduated college (Porter, 2015). Surprisingly, even the “best performers from disadvantaged backgrounds, who enter kindergarten reading as well as the smartest rich kids, fall behind over the course of their schooling” (Porter, 2015). These challenges indicate that not only do low SES children have to overcome structural and societal inequities that impede their learning, but even when they enter formal schooling, they might still be facing obstacles to continued success.
The Non-Cognitive Gap
Thus far, SES and academic development and performance have been linked; however, SES also fundamentally affects non-cognitive development. In the education literature, the term “non-cognitive” is often used with little regard to what the term encompasses. Broadly, the term refers to all traits that are independent of cognitive knowledge, such as tenacity, grit, and perseverance (Heckman and Rubinstein, 2001). The concept of non-cognitive abilities is linked with the model of emotional intelligence, because emotional intelligence provides a scientifically validated, ecologically valid way to measure social competences in education (Mayer & Salovey, 1997). Without the framework of emotional intelligence, non-cognitive traits are difficult to study and don’t necessarily constitute an “intelligence” separate from cognitive abilities. And while non-cognitive traits diverge slightly from the strict framework of emotional intelligence, it is necessary in order to provide a strong foundation in which to couch these aptitudes. Moreover, the development of both emotional intelligence and the broader concept of non-cognitive skills are invariably affected by a student’s SES.
The concept of non-cognitive abilities and disparities in education rely on the theoretical structure of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence was created by Peter Salovey and John Mayer in the late 1980s and describes the “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (Salovey and Mayer, 1989). This definition has been expanded to the four modern categories of emotional intelligence: perception of emotion, use of emotion to facilitate thought, understanding of emotion, and management of emotion to promote emotional and educational growth (Mayer & Salovey, 1997). While there has been very little work looking specifically at emotional intelligence in low SES groups, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that they might have lower levels of non-cognitive skills based on differential opportunities created by family structure.
Contrasting child-rearing techniques and household environments between social classes are what lead to differential non-cognitive skills and thus differential life outcomes. Families often differ in the ideals they try to cultivate in their children—some value respect and hard work, while others value creativity and freedom of expression. In pursuit of these ideals, there appear to be patterns in family principles that track with SES. Children of middle-class families are encouraged to talk about their feelings and question authority, while children of lower-class families are encouraged to respect authority and not interact with adults (Lareau, 2003). For example, low SES Latino families highly value the concept of “respeto” that encourages obedience to authority, deference, and decorum (Calzada et al., 2010). This fact demonstrates a clear distinction between parenting norms and values that vary by SES. Moreover, families of lower SES often live in situations that distract children from developing social and emotionally, and parents often don’t have time to focus on a child’s non-cognitive growth. These facts support the idea that differential family behaviors and environments from early childhood lead to lower levels of non-cognitive skills in lower class children (Farkas, 2003). Furthermore, non-cognitive skills are actually more important than cognitive skills in determining later life success, especially in labor-market outcomes and academic grades (Farkas, 2003).
The child-rearing attitudes of middle-class and working-class families differ markedly in many respects, especially in regards to formal education. Middle-class families often follow the paradigm of concerted cultivation, which emphasizes manipulation of the education system to suit their children and critically focuses on social-emotional skill development (Lareau, 2003). Additionally, middle-class families often have the time to participate in family discourse about feelings and causality, resulting in children who are better able to engage in conversations about feelings later in life (Dunn et al., 1991). Overall, students from middle-class homes don’t have the emotional, cognitive, and physical burdens of students in lower-class homes, which allows them to focus on their social, emotional, and academic development.
On the other hand, working-class families adhere to the paradigm of accomplishment of natural growth, which encourages children to develop without adult intervention (Lareau, 2003). This ideal is critically out of sync with the standards of educational institutions, because it teaches students to turn inward during development, rather than relying on adult interaction (Lareau, 2003). So, for example, rather than seeking help from a teacher or administrator when they are struggling in school, like middle-class students, lower-class students are more likely to struggle silently. This practices leads to many children in low-income families lacking strong the social-emotional skills critical for manipulating the social aspects of formal schooling. Further, household environments, especially poverty, impact children emotionally, physically, cognitively, and physiologically. Only half of low SES students live with both parents, compared to 83 percent of children of higher SES (Porter, 2015), which results in less time parents have to spend with their children. Poverty restricts a student’s viewpoint, forcing them to focus on day-to-day survival, rather than important non-cognitive skills, such as motivation, ability to concentrate, attendance, etc. (Ravitch, 2013). Moreover, children who live in poverty are more likely to “have seen a friend or relative murdered, which leads to emotional burdens” (Ravitch, 2013) that can impact non-cognitive skills. These factors might seem beyond the scope of formal schooling, but they are critically intertwined with student development, especially the development of non-cognitive skills.
This point-of-view is also mirrored in the work of Jessica Calarco. By longitudinally studying elementary school students from grades three to five, as well as conducting interviews, in-school observations, surveys, and analyses of school records, Calarco found that there are marked differences between the beliefs of middle- and working-class parents (2014). Middle-class parents subscribe to a “by-any-means” approach in regards to their children’s schooling (Calarco, 2014). They intervened to request support for their children, lobbied for their children, and critically expected their children to question their teachers. In contrast, working-class parents subscribe to a “no-excuses” model of problem solving (Calarco, 2014). These parents do not often question the school or teachers and rarely intervene, which is reflected in their children’s classroom behavior. Working-class parents often assume that teachers perceive questioning students as disrespectful; thus, they encourage their children to rely on their own resources and avoid seeking help (Calarco, 2014). Again, this information seems to suggest that differences between high- and low-SES children affect their behavior and non-cognitive skills in school.
While the extant research above focuses on mostly class-based differences in non-cognitive skills, it might also suggest a race-based difference in non-cognitive skills. As highlighted in the discussion of the achievement gap, race and class are critically intertwined in the United States (Caldas and Bankston, 1997). Even though differing levels of non-cognitive skills are primarily a factor of SES, it is impractical to ignore the correlation between race and SES in our society. While this should not indicate that students of color or lower SES are innately different in their non-cognitive skills, it should highlight the need for more opportunities for these students to develop non-cognitive skills. If it is true that the home environments of these students differentially develop non-cognitive skills, then it is crucial that schools remedy this disparity in order that educational inequities are not perpetuated. Further, in the context of school integration, these differences in non-cognitive skills may be important in allowing students move beyond just physical integration and move to emotional, social, and behavioral integration as well.
In the long pursuit of integration, more than just physical space influences schooling and educational outcomes. With a new generation of students, students and educators must go beyond traditional avenues. For example, research indicates that they can’t just share a verbal language, but must account for all the components of communication, including body language, play, and adult trustworthiness (Hanna, 1979). Further, multicultural education training and interracial mixing is no longer enough to transition from desegregation to integration, many other variables must be recognized (Hanna, 1979). In this generation, children’s perceptions and experiences are often in contrast with “adult ideals and the policies meant to realize them” (Hanna, 1979). Thus, new variables must be integrated into the conversation.
These new variables critically include non-cognitive skills. It is important to realize the possible differences in non-cognitive skills, because it has significant implications for how educators interact with students in the classroom. Recent research has suggested that “no-excuses” charter schools often inhibit the development of non-cognitive skills for students due to their stringent culture and extreme disciplinary practices (Golann, 2015). This possibility is even more problematic considering that “no-excuses” charter schools often target high-poverty, minority populations (Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2004)—populations that might already be lower in non-cognitive skills. Thus, a new variable in the domain of education sociology and education reform needs to be non-cognitive skills and how certain populations may have differential opportunities to develop these skills, with the hope that schools can help remedy these concerns.
Non-Cognitive Skills and School Integration
The effects of different levels of social capital, such as SEL skills, and school integration are relatively understudied in the existing literature. However, there is a small amount of research about the general topic of social skills and their interaction with traditional education structures in higher education. This research shows that colleges exacerbate and magnify differences, especially differences in cultural capital, even between students from similar backgrounds (particularly lower-income students) (Jack, 2014). Thus, students who are from lower-class families, but have similar cultural experiences or habits more closely aligned with upper-class students, are able to adapt to the upper-class style of college more effectively than students who have little experience with these practices (Jack, 2014). Taken together, it is not solely the race or SES of a student that affects their success, but is their level of cultural capital (Jack, 2014). This fact highlights that it is not just physical integration of students of different races of income levels that leads to integrated groups, but it is a recognition that different individuals come with different sets of social skills and that we must be aware of these different skills, as well as how they interact with traditional educational practices, to be able to effectively integrate students.
Taken together, the preceding information seems to suggest that children from lower-class backgrounds are disadvantaged in both the cognitive and non-cognitive domains; however, it should not immediately suggest that they are to blame for segregated or not-fully-integrated schools. While there is strong evidence suggesting that poverty does lead to them being disadvantaged in the cognitive domains of education (Ravitch, 2013), it is only hints that they might have lower levels of non-cognitive capabilities. And, even then, it is not due to inherent differences, just differential opportunities to develop this non-cognitive capital. Moreover, it definitely does not suggest that their possible differential levels of social-emotional skills lead to un-integrated schools. In fact, it is often children from lower-class backgrounds and children of color who benefit significantly from integrated schools (Hawley, 2004). Thus, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that they are the mechanism preventing full integration. However important social-emotional learning might be for integration, it does not seem to be the mechanism preventing full integration. This begs the question, what is a more convincing mechanism that could be impeding integration?
White Privilege and School Integration
“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
This quote, by Toni Morrison, shows the presumption of some individuals in America to take their race for granted — some would call it the privilege to do so. While students of color have never had the privilege of forgetting their racial identity, white students do it all the time. An anecdote from Inequality in the Promised Land describes how white parents talk to their children about race. When asked about their ethnicity, one parent seemed confused and confessed to never talking to their child about race (Lewis-McCoy, 2014). It is this white privilege that is a second possibility to explain why schools in the United States continue to struggle to integrate.
White individuals only feel that measures meant to equalize are stifling because they are used to a level of privilege. Thus, when they are forced to conform to a standard not set by them they view it as unfair, but in reality they are just having their privilege taken from them. African Americans rarely, if ever, experience this feeling. Thus, a different, and conceptually more plausible explanation for our lack of integration is white privilege. It is not the differential levels of non-cognitive competencies that are causing the problem, although they might eventually become important both for academic achievement and social cohesion in the classroom, it is rather white privilege that is perpetuating the problem.
White privilege inundates all of American society. Even political candidates capitalize on the uneasy feeling white Americans feel when faced with radical social equality (Kazin, 2016). However, it’s not just white privilege in schooling that leads to segregated schools. It is white privilege in other domains far removed from education, like housing policy and loan policy that also lead to segregated schools (Cohen, 2004). The long history of discriminatory housing policy, “white flight,” and prejudiced loan practices in the United States demonstrates the prejudice of whites and the privilege to which they have become accustomed. Moreover, it demonstrates how outside variables founded on white privilege have infiltrated the school system negatively.
It is difficult to extricate the effects of white privilege in general from the effect it has specifically in education, and that complicated topic would be outside the scope of this paper. However, it is fair to assume that the history of white privilege and racial discrimination in the United States is at least partially to blame for a general lack of integration in our current education system. Nonetheless, it is important not to dwell on the faults of previous generations, although they must be understood and acknowledged, but to focus on the positive work that is happening today in schools. While white privilege still runs rampant on society, we cannot wait until it is eliminated to try and integrate schools. Thus, in the pursuit of integrating the current generation, educators must have a well-rounded idea of the many factors that contribute to segregation, including white privilege.
Taken together, the above evidence is not straightforward—it doesn’t suggest a singular group or reason is to blame for non-integrated schools. However, as a society 50 years past the Brown v. Board decision, we must work to figure out how to integrate schools. It is only by realizing the many factors at play that parents, students, educators, and policymakers can work to eradicate segregation and work towards integration. In this pursuit, this paper highlights both non-cognitive skills and white privilege as two crucial components of integration. While neither is unambiguously causing or perpetuating segregation, they both are important now, and in the future, as mechanisms by which full integration can occur.
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