Teachers' classroom styles are critical to making desegregation of schools across socioeconomic lines work effectively, a Johns Hopkins education researcher and sociologist has found.
In a new book, Stephen Plank, a researcher at Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools, concludes that teachers are as important as the students themselves in promoting the interaction of children from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds that economic desegregation is intended to promote.
Finding One's Place: Teaching Styles and Peer Relations in Diverse Classrooms, published last month by Teacher's College Press, follows students and teachers in 10 recently desegregated LaCrosse, Wis., classrooms.
Plank found that teachers with what is considered a very traditional teaching style tended to create stratified, hierarchal classrooms with little social interaction among different groups. A traditional teaching style relies heavily on lectures and whole class instruction, rather than on frequently breaking up the class into small work groups, and it tends to publicly reward high-achieving students.
In 1992, the LaCrosse school board made national headlines when it adopted a desegregation plan designed to eliminate the predominantly poor or rich student bodies that had come to define its elementary schools. That fall, some 800 students boarded buses that would take them across the city to their new schools, changing the look and feel of public school classrooms all over the city.
To learn whether desegregation worked, and whether or not students actually integrated into their new learning environments, Plank closely followed 10 fourth-grade classrooms throughout the 1993-94 school year. Though the announced intention of the LaCrosse school board was to create economic balance among the schools, Plank found that the desegregation did affect one ethnic population, the largely low-income Laotian Hmong immigrants. According to the 1990 census, LaCrosse was 94 percent white, 1 percent African American and Native American and 5 percent Asian; four-fifths of the Asians were Hmong. For many of the students in the more well-off areas in LaCrosse, the inclusion of the Hmong students created the first time they shared a classroom with children of another race.
By the end of the school year, Plank found that for the most part each of the 10 classes fell into one of two categories. The first had a strong hierarchy with two or three star students and minimal social interaction among several small, closed pockets of friends. Hmong students and poor white students did not fare very well socially in these classrooms. The other type of class was more ideal, with more heterogeneous workmate and playmate patterns and a great deal of interaction among groups, regardless of gender or background. Usually in those classes no one student was considered a star or the most popular. Among students and poor white students fared better socially in this type of setting, Plank says.
"The leadership style of the teachers had a far more profound impact on class peer relations than most people--including those teachers themselves--might have expected," Plank says. "What I found particularly interesting is that most of the time the teachers of the more stratified classes actually thought their teaching style was quite egalitarian. They had one set of high standards and held everyone to it; they didn't change their teaching style based on the diversity of the class."
Teachers of that group often promoted the rise of a few star students, who were either the highest achievers or the best behaved, and very often publicly held up those students as examples to the rest of class. Those teachers' classrooms typically also had a narrower range of class activities and a very traditional form of instruction.
"I don't want to judge them harshly, because their goal of holding everyone up to the same standards is commendable, and more often than not, that was the parents' request," Plank says. "But the sad twist is that their classes remained very stratified, and some students became labeled by themselves and their classmates as failures or outsiders--labels that didn't change much over the year."
Teachers with the more integrated classrooms tended to draw the different home and life experiences of students into their lessons and did not hold up students' work as examples for the rest of the class. Teachers of these classrooms often created settings with what Plank describes as "high acquaintance potential," by frequently dividing the classrooms into small groups or pairs, each assigned a cooperative goal. They also incorporated a broad range of activities that encouraged participation among all the students.
For example, during a math lesson, one student remarked on the similarities between an exercise and a dice game he had learned from his gambling uncle. Breezing over the seedier aspect of the story, the teacher invited the student to teach the game to the class and incorporated it into the math lesson. The child had never been a top student and was rather low on the popularity totem pole, but after the class learned the game, Plank and the teacher noticed an appreciable difference in the student's confidence, both in the classroom and in his dealings with the other students.
"I think LaCrosse offers some important lessons for any teacher who has a very diverse classroom," Plank says. "For any sort of desegregation to truly work, what seems to matter most is that teachers encourage activities and interactions that reveal enough detail about students' personalities, interests and abilities so that students see each other as individuals and disconfirm stereotypes. The way the teacher organizes his or her classroom can have wonderful potential to engender cohesion, cooperation and integration."