Students Benefit From Ethnic Diversity

Fifty-two years after the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, psychological science measures just how far we’ve come. The decision that opened the door for classroom diversity has also yielded feelings of safety and social satisfaction among American middle schoolers, a recent study shows.

Janna Juvonen, Adrienne Nishiana, and Sandra Graham (University of California, Los Angeles) investigated students’ perceptions of safety and vulnerability in 11 Los Angeles public middle schools that varied in ethnic diversity. The team, which publishes its findings in the May issue of Psychological Science, found that when students belong to one of many groups — that is, when there is no one majority group — there is a perceived balance of power and there are reduced feelings of vulnerability. Individuals in diverse student bodies exhibit higher levels of self esteem and lower levels of loneliness and experience less harassment by peers.

“The findings of this particular study are very exciting and encouraging,” says Juvonen. “Greater ethnic diversity is associated with student perceptions of school safety and diminished sense of being bullied by peers. In other words, our findings suggest that multiethnic educational settings provide psychological benefits to students.”

In 80 classrooms during the fall semester and 74 classrooms in the spring, students and teachers completed written questionnaires. Instructions and questions were read aloud, and students recorded their responses. Questions like, “How often do you feel safe while in your school building?” were rated on a number scale. Students were also asked to rate their level of agreement with statements such as “Some kids are often picked on by other kids, BUT other kids are not picked on by other kids” and “I have nobody to talk to.”

Although the findings show the advantages of ethnic integration, US schools have yet to fully realize the benefits. A look at the composition of public schools shows a large degree of ethnic isolation. Currently, African American children are 70 percent more likely to attend schools with an African American majority than at any time since the 1960s. Latino students are even more likely than African American students to attend schools serving predominantly ethnic minorities. Reflecting on the legacy of Brown in light of such statistics, the authors write that “it seems timely to reexamine the psychological benefits associated with ethnic diversity in schools.”

Learn more about the benefits of school diversity in “Ethnic Diversity and Perceptions of Safety” in the May issue of Psychological Science.

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