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More about Wake County, CMS, diversity and academic achievement

Maddie Liggett, center, and others protest after the Wake County school board voted recently to end the district’s diversity-based assignment policy.
Maddie Liggett, center, and others protest after the Wake County school board voted recently to end the district’s diversity-based assignment policy. ehyman@newsobserver.com

I almost missed an interesting report from T. Keung Hui at the News & Observer on a Duke University study that compared racial diversity and academic achievement in five large N.C. school districts, including Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

It seems timely to pass the link along, given that OneMeck plans to feature Wake/CMS comparisons as part of a discussion on CMS demographics Monday.

The study, which also examined Cumberland, Guilford and Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools, looked at how diversity changed after the districts abandoned race-based student assignment.

Wake switched in 2000 to trying to balance the percentages of students receiving subsidized lunches in its schools while the other districts moved to neighborhood schools and choice, Hui reports.

“While we found some decline in the degree of racial diversity associated with Wake County schools after adoption of the socioeconomic plan versus the prior race-based plan, there was significantly less diversity in the school districts that were not using either plan,” Duke researcher William A. Darity Jr. said in a news release.

So far so good. I don’t know much about the other three, but there’s little doubt that CMS has much more racial isolation, as well as many schools with higher concentrations of poverty, than Wake does.

But I was surprised to see that the research also concluded that Wake had made bigger academic gains and come closer to closing racial achievement gaps than the other districts. Hui quoted Monique McMillian, the study’s lead author and an associate professor at Morgan State University in Maryland, as saying that the study provides “tentative evidence that income-based assignment policies improve achievement and increase diversity.”

After looking at the most recent data on test scores and graduation rates, I thought CMS and Wake looked strikingly similar – and that CMS has made more progress in recent years, given that Wake was the undisputed academic leader a few years back.

Tracking these trends isn’t as easy as it might seem. North Carolina changes its testing program frequently, leading to spikes and plunges that have little to do with what students learn. Demographics, leadership and educational strategies keep changing, too.

The researchers acknowledge that it’s impossible to conclude that Wake’s poverty-based assignment policy caused the gains they observed.

And that’s really the challenge for all who care about education in general and student assignment in particular. We’d all love to identify a strategy that clearly benefits all students – or even be sure that a specific change in student assignment would make life better for the students who struggle most.

But it’s never that simple and clear.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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