The Collision of Worlds: Exploring the Complexities and Tradeoffs of Integration in Education

By Michaela Echols (‘21)

The social integration of schools serves as one of the key components of improvement in educational landscapes worldwide. The social stratification that has defined many educational landscapes has resulted in the marginalization of students from lower socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds and/or who belong to minority groups. Social integration has been recognized as an equalizer of sorts simply because it places these students in the same building. As the following studies have shown, this is only the first step to the attainment of social integration, and the various complexities and tradeoffs of integration must be recognized and addressed in order to ensure that all students benefit from it and that no harm is caused. With the consideration of the Machuca program in the Chilean context, P.L. Carter’s studies on integration in South Africa and the United States, and references from several other researchers whose texts provide a deeper understanding of the complexities and tradeoffs of integration and ways for its promotion, this paper argues that when the complexities and tradeoffs of integration are thoroughly considered, integration will look less like conformity and more like unity in diversity.

To begin, it is important to define true integration. While legislation has the power to desegregate schools, as seen in the Muchuca program and the proposed law it inspired, in the South African education policies following the end of apartheid, and in America’s Brown v. Board Decision (1954), it is ultimately up to the school administration/teachers to achieve true integration—otherwise schools will just become reflections of the segregated societies they are embedded in, with students only interacting with one another when necessary. Carter provides a provocative take on the purposes of integrated schooling, questioning if the point was to “merely provide proximity to better academic resources, or if moral and social imperatives mandated that educators in integrated schools foster educational environments of tolerance, respect for cultural differences, and the development of multiple ties across social lines(2). She uses the words of sociologist William Trent to help articulate what successful integration looks like: “When groupness was no longer determined by racial identity, and once learners interacted and participated in activities with one another across these lines is a semblance of integration” (2). The cases of the Machuca program in Chile and the school contexts in South Africa and the United States demonstrate the complexities and tradeoffs of integration. In the Chilean context, although the program improved equity while maintaining school choice, some of the experiences shared by the students reveal that integration was not fully achieved. 

In the 1960s, the Congregation of Holy Cross in Chile created a social integration program at the elite Saint George’s College, its flagship school. Beginning at the tail end of the decade, hundreds of poor students who lived nearby integrated into the school over the course of 10 years. This program inspired Chilean legislators over half a century later to propose the Machuca Law, characterized by the goal of a national emulation of the program’s integration of Chilean children of lower socio-economic status, who have historically been of predominantly Indigenous descent, with their peers of the middle and upper classes, who have historically been children of mostly European descent. With eight percent of the schools in Chile fully private, the Machuca Law would require all of these fully private schools to reserve up to thirty percent of their enrollment for low-income students (4). The stories former students have shared from their experiences as Machuca students illustrate that this proposed shift in demographics would only serve as the mere first step to achieving true integration. D’Agostino’s case study found that in the program, students reported occurrences of social isolation, discrimination, and bullying. While former students also reported positive long-term benefits, the aforementioned difficulties should not be considered as worthy tradeoffs for these benefits. These incidents ultimately indicate that full integration did not in fact take place in the program, suggesting that the case necessitates more study so that the proposed law can be more accurately informed. 

In order to prevent the negative experiences the former students endured from recurring, D’Agostino recommends the integration of students beginning at a young age, the strengthening of the systems of accompaniment and support, and the minimization of markers of disparity (4). These recommendations are promising steps to take towards true integration. To expand upon the recommendation of strengthened support and more specifically psycho-social support, it would be valuable to consider the relatability of the background of the chosen professionals in regards to race, class, and geography, which could make such services more effective. This recommendation also brings to mind the importance of what educational policy expert Linds Chisholm refers to as equal treatment or opportunity, in which “educators ignore the vastly different material or historical realities of students, expect assimilation and attempt to treat all students in the same manner” (2). The complexities of an integrated school body must be considered thoroughly and special approaches must be taken to ensure integration and ultimately students’ success. Psycho-social support from relatable professionals is an important tool for this.

While D’Agostino’s recommendation of minimizing markers of disparity makes sense in the Chilean context, when it comes to integration in general, this proposed rule for student conduct and presentation of self is a component of “the sociocultural domain of schooling that can reinforce symbolic boundaries,” according to Carter (2). More generally, these recommendations and the general characteristics of the reform appear to attempt to unite the students into a homogenous body rather than fostering unity in diversity; “plurality is attacked by conformity” (2). The criticality of this theme is emphasized in the other studies, which highlight two factors that did not receive as much focus in the Machuca program: race & ethnicity. 

Although Latin-American countries often frame discrimination as a matter of class, it cannot be overlooked that class often correlates with race in these countries, as seen with the predominantly Indigenous backgrounds of the poor students in the Machuca program. While integration constitutes a minimization of differences, this paper argues that some of these differences need to be appreciated. Carter refers to this as “substantive inclusion,” which means “having one group’s affiliation fully acknowledged and equally valued as an active member of the community” (2). She takes this further with the introduction of the term “academic incorporation,” which denotes how the school “moves myriad groups of historically disadvantaged students toward its center and away from its margins without forcing acculturation or loss of a group’s cultural integrity” (2). Integration must be carefully approached in a way so that the identity of the majority is not made the norm. Cultural identity should not be considered a trade-off in the integration process. However, negative norms that often afflict disadvantaged schools need to be vigilantly pushed against. As scholar Richard D. Kahlenberg argues, students can benefit from the exposure to positive norms like raised aspirations, valuing educational achievement, etc. (5). Therefore the identity-formation of schools undergoing integration requires a cautious distinction between positive and negative norms so that students are permitted to be their authentic selves, while striving to reach their full personal & academic potential in order to become their best selves. 

The complexity of integration is also seen when it comes to recognizing what constitutes an integrated student body in a numerical sense. Being an extreme minority in the educational setting can be difficult. Research shows that integration must occur in tandem with increased diversity; according to a 2019 Indiana school voucher study, poor, mostly minority students do better in more diverse private schools than the least diverse private schools (1). Along with an appreciation for diversity, an increase in diversity rather than mere tokenism can possibly decrease discrimination and increase a sense of belonging for students of lower SES and/or minorities. This reveals a tradeoff of integration that is characterized as the impact of students seeing less of themselves reflected in the student body. It is one thing to be around motivated peers that do not look like you, but it is another thing to be around those that do. It is so important to see excellence that looks like oneself, which is why majority-minority institutions like HBCUs have the positive effects that they do on their graduates. Additionally, studies have shown the positive outcomes of minority students having access to teachers from similar backgrounds. The backgrounds of the teachers are just as important as those of the peers, and therefore should be considered as two parts of a whole. Carter cites a study with findings that showed that African Americans in majority-minority schools “possess a higher propensity to cross social and cultural boundaries and maintain higher levels of global self-esteem than their peers in affluent, white-dominant schools” (2). Numbers in integration do indeed matter, and constitute both peers and teachers; more diversity can occur in tandem with integration.

The importance of the reflection of minority students in student body and teacher demographics also applies to the curriculum. Researcher Linda Darling-Hammond presents Walneck’s (1993) argument on the importance of multicultural education, which “demands that the expressions and experiences of disadvantaged groups be represented in the curriculum and recognized as valued knowledge, for only when the ideas of all groups are represented can equal opportunity hold” (3). This echoes the sentiments of young Judah in Carter’s South African study, who critiqued the education system for not appreciating his and other minority students’ backgrounds, and therefore giving students another reason not to integrate among themselves. The effectiveness of this type of curriculum will be the highest when the classrooms themselves are integrated. Therefore, tracking students can be seen as a complication of social integration efforts, as it is a process that is highly correlated with race and ethnicity, which can diminish “the inclination to seek out cross-racial or cross-ethnic relations” (3). Efforts at integration must be as evident in the curriculum as they are in the school demographics. In the context of the Machuca program, perhaps the students would have felt more a sense of belonging with a core inclusive curriculum; this would have also impacted how their peers viewed them as well, cultivating an increased sense of respect for the backgrounds of the Machuca students.

This relates to the theme of the promotion of democratic values through integration that Kahlenberg presents. In the context of the U.S., Kahlenberg uses Mann’s argument that integration can promote democratic values by teaching children that everyone is equal (5). This reflects one of the lasting impacts described by the Machuca graduates as one that gave them confidence, showed lower SES students that they were all capable, smart, had control over their own destinies, were able to “play in the big leagues,” and play any part (4).  Kahlenberg’s research supports these observations, supposing that there is a “promise of upward mobility by exposing poor children to higher aspirations and new possibilities, with children that attend schools with higher socioeconomic status having their educational attainment rise substantially’” (5). A possible tradeoff to these realizations is that a disconnect from the origins of these children could be created. This is seen in the concern that one of Carter’s South African students Mmabthu had, which was the worry that as the students in her group became upwardly mobile, they would “forget their own cultural heritages and social histories in the process of embracing so-called white cultural tastes” (2). 

In the Chilean context, this occurrence seemed to be framed by students as something positive and as a symbol of integration. However, some of the poor students in the Machuca program were shunned from their community since their interaction with the upper classes in the schools was perceived as a form of betrayal and a message of superiority to their community. D’Agostino could have improved his study of the program with more in-depth questioning regarding how the former students personally experienced integration. Was it difficult for students who integrated easily to be able to relate to the other students who did not? What were the experiences of the poor students and other community members who were not in the program? Was a possible tradeoff of the Machuca program being outcast from one’s original social group in exchange for acceptance into another? 

Carter states that such a pattern did in fact occur in her study of low-income youth in New York, in which “African American and Latino youth challenged peers who had traversed ethnoracial boundaries” and chose to emulate their white peers (2). These same sentiments could have been at play in the Chilean context as well. Therefore, in addition to the earlier recommendation of carefully navigating identity-formation and norms inside a school, it may be just as important to promote better engagement outside the school with the communities the students come from so as to avoid such strain and promote an all-encompassing social cohesion.

Another possible tradeoff with integration relates more to the concept of individuality and language. Although this was not a significant complexity of integration in the Chilean context due to the shrinking population of speakers of indigenous languages, language is still an important factor to consider in the broader discourse of social integration.  Carter uses the example of Ebonics in the United States to describe this issue, with the concern that students who do not speak “standard English” may be made to feel that the way that they speak is inferior. Language is a part of one’s culture. The conflation of the two terms non-standard and improper when referring to a student’s speech can be damaging to a student’s sense of identity, and can foster a sense of inferiority (2). This loss of individuality may also contribute to the exclusion of students from their social groups. While newly acquired language skills may give students an advantage in the growing service economy where “workers relate directly with customers and clients”, students may be less appreciative of their linguistic roots, which are an integral part of their cultures (5). Kahlenberg points out that this metaphorical “rising beyond one’s origins” can be seen as a “rejection of the group and even traitorous” (5). 

Within the classroom, there are a multitude of complexities that surround students for which English is a second language (or in other contexts, the official language is their second language). On the importance of an optimal classroom environment, Kahlenberg states that teacher efficiency is impeded with “large numbers of slow learners and students for whom English is a second language, as they require extra teacher attention” (5). This brings up the question of what can be learned from language-immersion schools and schools that generally encourage students to use their native language (if it is a common one) in class as a mode of learning and for assisting their peers to become fluent. When it comes to language, the tradeoff of integration lies in the fact that the goal of unity discourages the communicative ability and cultural pride that students whose first language is not English may have in their native language. Additionally, their peers could be missing out on an opportunity to more effectively learn a foreign language due to the influence they have on one another & their close proximity. When schools have what Kahlenberg refers to as “a core of motivated and academically-able students to provide a stable base for instruction”, what is usually perceived as a tradeoff can become an advantage (5).

This analysis of the Machuca program and educational contexts of South Africa and the United States weighs the various complexities and tradeoffs of social integration, which come into consideration only when the concept is properly defined. Although the recommendations for the Machuca reforms appeared to be effective for addressing the concerns of some of the former students of the program in the 1960s, they could be seen as only addressing part of the problem. Carter’s analysis of the educational contexts of the United States and South Africa helps define true integration, and offers ideas and solutions that could be applied to the Machuca Law. At the end of her work, Carter offers very thoughtful considerations for teachers to take in order to “prevent overt or latent group inequality,” which includes questioning if a practice or policy “engenders an inequitable pattern by social grouping or identity,” clarifying “when should social and cultural identities matter and when should they not matter” when it comes to a specific social practice, and by “questioning if a particular educational practice can be deemed egalitarian or not” (2). Although the recommendations to the Machuca reforms offered viable solutions to some of the negative experiences the former students experienced, it has to be acknowledged that there was an undertone of conformity. Carter’s recommendations above counter the various complexities and tradeoffs of integration by emphasizing that behind the solutions should be considerations that promote unity in diversity and therefore true integration. The educational landscapes of Chile, South Africa, and the United States could all benefit from such an approach.

Michaela Echols majors in American Studies and Global Affairs with concentration in global policy at the University of Notre Dame. Her essay was originally written for Professor TJ D’Agostino’s Global Affairs course, ‘International and Comparative Education Policy.’ She chose her American Studies major because she has always had a desire to learn how she got here, to understand her surroundings, and to imagine a just path forward.


  1. Berends, Mark, and R. Joseph Waddington. “Scaling up and sustaining charter school effects.” School choice at the crossroads: Research perspectives (2019): 148-170.
  2. Carter, Prudence L. Stubborn roots: Race, culture, and inequality in US and South African schools. Oxford University Press, (2012).
  3. Darling-Hammond, L. The flat world and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. Teachers College Press, (2015): 1-26.
  4. D’Agostino, T.J. Exploring Equity Reforms in Chile: A longitudinal study of social integration in an elite Chilean school. (Unpublished).
  5. Kahlenberg, R.D. All together now: Creating middle-class schools through public school choice. Brookings Institution Press, (2004): 47-76.

Though we may be accessing this site from around the world, we acknowledge our affiliation with the University of Notre Dame and thus our presence on the traditional homelands of Native peoples (even if virtually) including the Haudenosauneega, Miami, Peoria, and particularly the Pokégnek Bodéwadmik, who have been using this land for education for thousands of years, and continue to do so.

%d bloggers like this: