Fundació Jaume Bofill Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC)

Thinking about future challenges of education in Catalonia

Alternatives to School Segregation in the US: The Case of Magnet Schools

About the speaker

Gary Orfield

07/06/11 07.30 pm

Professor and Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA

Initial ideas

• Historically, the education system in the US has been highly segregated, whether in terms of race, language or socioeconomic level.

• In general, the ability to choose a school has come out on top in the same way as any other product in a free market – the underlying idea being that the free market guarantees equal opportunities and so should free choice of school.

• In the US, a popular idea is that education is vital as an economic catalyst for the country. Training is essential for progress and innovation, and thus to lead the world economy. Likewise, research shows that good academic results lead to greater success in the labour market.

• Studies have shown that school segregation does not guarantee civil rights or equal opportunities, and that it helps maintain social segregation.

• Freedom to choose a school does not mean real freedom of opportunity. We have seen throughout US history in states with high levels of segregation that white people chose white schools and black people, black schools. There was no integration.

• Mandatory transfer of students to certain schools to aid integration has not been successful either.

Magnet schools

• Magnet schools began in the 1970s and were designed to break down racial barriers and foster the voluntary commitment of students, parents and teachers to integrated schools offering special education opportunities. Magnet schools are based on the idea of ensuring civil rights and equal opportunities, and that only by fighting segregation can we overcome the inequality of opportunity that the free market has been unable to.

• Magnet schools are characterised by their offering added value in their educational programme. They look to introduce elements in the school that make them attractive and genuine – something that makes each magnet school unique. They offer things that ordinary schools do not and they are set up in areas with high levels of social segregation.

• Each magnet school chooses a differentiating factor normally linked to a popular or attractive activity in the area, such as the performing arts, research projects, or links to a successful hospital or university. There is no single model for a magnet school.

• Magnet schools are based on the idea of free choice of school. They have to be able to attract students from different races and social groups. The enrolment policy has to guarantee real integration. Thus, if there is more demand than supply, there is a drawing of lots. Places are also set aside for the most disadvantaged groups. But there has to be a critical mass to ensure integration.

• A series of associated measures are also required to ensure magnet schools work, such as a free transport service to bring in the students from other areas who want to go to a magnet school. Information policies are also required to broadcast the importance of going to a magnet school among the most disadvantaged groups. These groups normally have the greatest difficulty accessing information and, thus, the fewest real possibilities of choosing the type of education they want. In some cases, these difficulties are linked to language, so it is essential to make sure that the information reaches these groups in their own language.

• It has been shown that these schools achieve a high level of commitment from teachers and parents. The teachers are motivated to take part in this kind of experience which involves a high level of innovation. They are the ones who have to find innovative solutions to make the school unique, to make it attractive and different.

• It has also been shown that parents participate more in their children's education at this kind of school.

• Magnet schools look for desegregation in terms of race, language and socioeconomic status. They adapt to the social reality of each area.

• This type of school encourages heterogeneity as a guarantee of success. They respect each group's culture.

• Magnet schools obtain state funding for their initial development, but are controlled locally. Their cost is 10% higher than that of ordinary schools.

• There are currently 2 million students in magnet schools. The Obama administration has backed this type of school again, but, as the speaker points out, not to the degree that was initially hoped for.

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