Why is diversity important in school

For years, education politicians across Germany have been working to reduce failure rates in schools. Perhaps they could take an example from a project in the USA. Researchers at Stanford University have presented a study, the results of which sound positive in two respects: Not only did they succeed in significantly improving the performance of previously weak students. They also learned something about their fellow human beings and ethnic diversity.

Three high schools in San Francisco offered courses that discussed cultural diversity, origins and the role of minorities. For example, in the courses, students and teachers worked out how advertising shapes cultural stereotypes. Weak students with one grade point average (GPA) below 2.0 (in the German grading system this is comparable to grade 3), had to take part in the courses. Participation was voluntary for all other students.

The results: Participants in the courses not only increased their attendance at school by 21 percent, they also improved their GPA by an average of 1.4 points. The scientists observed particularly positive effects in mathematics and the natural sciences. Male students and those with a Latin American immigrant background benefited most from the courses.

What the study leaders say

"What is special about the program is the extent to which it has helped participants," says Emily Penner, co-lead researcher on the study. Schools have tried a lot to help weak students, but hardly anything has been as effective. "The success of the approach suggests that presenting socially relevant topics to problem students can really pay off."

Penner's co-author Thomas S. Dee says, "Teaching about ethnic diversity could be so effective because it is an unusually powerful socio-psychological intervention." In other words, if pupils who are otherwise disinterested in school speak about socially relevant topics such as racism, their interest in the school as a whole increases and their grades improve.

It seems logical that disinterested students should be excited about the lessons by topics that also affect their private life. Nevertheless, the results cannot be generalized across the board, says Dee: "It is still unclear whether this will also work in other school districts. But effects of this magnitude give rise to enthusiasm."

About the study

For their study Penner and Dee evaluated data collected at three high schools in San Francisco between 2010 and 2014. They compared instructional instruction and academic performance of a total of 1,405 ninth graders. The full study can be found here.