Why We’re Seeing the Re-Segregation of Schools — and Understanding Its Impact on Students

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | October 24, 2016

Students enter one of the "free schools" opened in 1963 after Prince Edward County voted to close its public schools rather than desegregate. Photo by Thomas J. O'Halloran via the Library of Congress.

Students enter one of the “free schools” opened in 1963 after Prince Edward County in Virginia voted to close its public schools rather than integrate. Photo by Thomas J. O’Halloran via the Library of Congress.

Twelve years after the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional, a team of researchers led by sociologist James Coleman published the landmark Equality of Educational Opportunity report, attempting to assess the scope and impact of segregation. Now commonly called the Coleman Report, the study of more than 600,000 students and teachers helped frame an education debate that still resonates today in academia and beyond, 50 years after it was released.

“It was the first large-scale study of inequality across schools and achievement,” said Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University, discussing his own research that looks at the impact of school and residential segregation on standardized test scores today.

In particular, the Coleman Report tried to assess whether inequalities at school or at home were more significant determinants of a student’s success. And though it found widespread segregation and differences in school quality, it concluded that a student’s attitudes about school and their sense of control over their own environment were most strongly correlated with differences in achievement. “It appears reasonable that these attitudes depend more on the home than the school,” the study concluded. Coleman’s investigation into the relative impact of family background versus school quality has animated decades of research. “That remains a big question today that gets talked about in various ways in policy conversations,” said Reardon.

In his own analysis of more than 100 million standardized test scores from students in grades 3 through 8 between 2009 and 2012, Reardon determined that while segregation itself was a predictor of achievement gaps, the differences in average school poverty between schools attended by white and black students was the single strongest predictor. The work builds on research that links segregation and poverty rates to school performance, but it underscores the interwoven reality of race and poverty across the more than 300 metropolitan areas included in his analysis.

At the time of Coleman’s study, “two-thirds of black students attended schools that were 90 to 100 percent black,” writes Reardon, while “80 percent of white students attended schools that were 90 to 100 percent white.” The report laid the groundwork for court-ordered busing to desegregate schools after years of little progress. The effort was relatively short-lived as the courts later backed away from the Brown v. Board ruling and Coleman himself came out with another controversial study concluding that busing had failed because white families fled cities for suburban school districts.

And so, public schools today are more segregated than they were in the 1980s. “If we ask whether the average black student is exposed to more white students in public school today than a half century ago,” writes Steven Rivkin, professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “the answer is yes, although fewer than in the 1980s; after rising in the 1970s, the rate of exposure has declined markedly since 1988.”

But Reardon looked not just at segregation in schools, but also at residential segregation. “So, you can imagine a metropolitan area that was very residentially segregated…but where the schools are more integrated because of how kids are assigned to school, where they draw attendance boundaries, how much busing they do,” explained Reardon. Because of policies like those, Reardon said it was important to not treat residential and school segregation as identical.

He also charted exposure to poor neighbors and schoolmates for black, white and Hispanic students. “I wanted to see which of those kinds of segregation is most predictive of achievement gaps,” said Reardon. “I also was interested in whether it’s due to racial segregation per se or whether it’s the fact that in most cases when you have a high level of racial segregation, minority students are in schools with much higher poverty rates than whites.”

In the end, he found that while all measures of segregation were linked to lower test scores for black and Hispanic students, it was racial differences in exposure to poverty at school — whites students tending to go to wealthier schools and black and Hispanic students tending to go to poorer schools — that was the biggest factor driving the gap in test scores. “In the average metropolitan area,” the study notes, “the racial difference in exposure to poverty is roughly twenty percentage points, corresponding to an achievement gap of 0.12 to 0.15.” And the gaps were larger in cities with large economic disparities.

In another study published earlier this year with colleagues Demetra Kalogrides and Kenneth Shores, Reardon and his colleagues charted standardized math and reading test results by district for third through eighth grade students across the country to see how far above or below grade level different groups of students were scoring. In the Houston Independent School District, for example, the biggest district in one of the most economically segregated metropolitan areas, white students scored an average of 1.6 years ahead of grade level, while Hispanic students scored 0.6 years behind grade level and black students scored 1.1 years behind grade level.

Many of the inequalities occur in the classroom. So, districts serving mostly poor and non-white students tend to have more inexperienced teachers and higher teacher turnover than those serving wealthier students. And differences in course offerings and curriculum can also exacerbate achievement gaps. He also noted that, beyond segregation, broader societal racism can affect students’ opportunities.

But Reardon said addressing the problem can’t be isolated to schools alone.

“It’s pretty hard to create less segregated schools in the context of highly segregated residential patterns,” said Reardon. “It might be that school segregation is most salient but what produces that? A large part of that is residential patterns.” Because residential segregation and school segregation are so linked, he said, it will take a variety of efforts to address school inequalities.

“We’ve got to think about housing policies, zoning policies, where attendance zones for schools are, what kind of choice policies we have, transportation policies,” said Reardon. “It’s hard to move the needle on these things. You have to think about moving every needle a little bit.”

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