Key Effects of Desegregation Policy Remain Unknown, Study Contends
Social scientists have yet to adequately measure the costs and benefits of efforts to desegregate schools and neighborhoods, according to a forthcoming study by a sociologist whose earlier work sparked a controversial reassessment of the war on poverty.
While a number of studies have attempted to determine the effects of racial and economic isolation on the educational achievement of individual students, the report says, most are either methodologically flawed or contradict the findings of other studies.
In addition, the current body of research fails to answer many important questions, it contends.
For example, the study says, "most experts believe that a school's racial mix does not affect white students' achievement, but the evidence for this view is not conclusive."
And while there is some evidence that attending an integrated school benefits black students, at least in Northern school districts, it says, researchers have not determined whether this effect is as valid for low-income students as for those of middle income.
The study,"The Social Consequences of Growing Up in a Poor Neighborhood: A Review," comes at a time when some policymakers are expressing renewed interest in efforts to racially and economically integrate neighborhoods and, to a lesser extent, schools.
But both supporters and opponents of school and housing desegregation will find little valid research to back up their arguments, the study says.
"I don't think most people who have been eager to argue either side of this case have relied heavily on research evidence up to now," said the lead author of the study, Christopher Jencks, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University.
"This study won't change their views, because they were certain they knew the answers without any research," Mr. Jencks said.
"But if you feel like you needed evidence before you took action, then you ought to be bothered" by the study's findings, he added.
The existing body of research sheds little light on either the long-term effects of desegregation in housing and schools or who stands to gain or lose the most from the policy, he said.
The research in this area "is probably better than none, but not much," Mr. Jencks said. "On a scale from zero to ten, I'd say it rates about a two."
Mr. Jencks is best known for his 1972 book, Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. It argued that disparities in adult occupational status and earnings are not primarily attributable to the fact that workers come from different family backgrounds, have different cognitive skills, or have spent different amounts of time in school.
For his latest study, Mr. Jencks and his co-author, Susan E. Mayer, a research associate at Northwestern University's Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, reviewed virtually all of the available research linking the socioeconomic and racial mix of neighborhoods and schools to educational attainment, cognitive skills, criminal and sexual behavior, and labor-market status.
"As a rule," the study says, "the more aspects of family background [researchers] control, the smaller neighborhood and school effects look."
This phenomenon is most likely due to the fact that a family's characteristics, such as the mother's and father's occupations and level of education, play a large role in their choice of residence and in the schooling options available to them, the authors said.
But the study should not be interpreted to mean that an individual's neighborhood or school has no significant influence on his or her eventual success, the researchers cautioned.
Rather, they said, the study's primary finding is that the scope of these influences usually cannot be determined from the available research.
"The evidence we reviewed does not allow us to draw even tentative conclusions about whether the poor gain more from residential or school desegregation than the rich lose," the study says.
"If the effects are' roughly linear, as social scientists tend to assume," it continues, "moving the poor to more affluent neighborhoods will redistribute the cost of having poor neighbors from the poor to the more affluent, but it will not reduce the costs to society as a whole."
"Such a change is unlikely to win broad political support," the study adds.
Some of the effects of a neighborhood's average income level may work at cross-purposes, with a negative factor cancelling a positive one, so that there may be little overall effect on an individual's chances of success, the authors suggest.
For example, "when neighbors set social standards or create institutions that serve an entire neighborhood, affluent neighbors are likely to be an advantage," the researchers say. But "when neighbors compete with one another for a scarce resource, such as social standing, high school grades, or teenage jobs, affluent neighbors are likely to be a disadvantage."
These hypotheses in particular have been repeatedly tested and proven in research on the college plans of high-school students, the study says.
"A school's mean socioeconomic status tends to have a small positive effect on an individual's college plans, but the school's mean test score tends to have a small negative effect," it says. "Since the two are highly correlated, the net impact of [a school's] mean socioeconomic status is close to zero."
When looking at studies of the effects of neighborhoods and schools on students' test scores, the authors reach the following conclusions:
"A high school's mean socioeconomic status has very little effect on white 9th graders' subsequent cognitive growth."
"A high school's mean socioeconomic status may have an appreciable effect on black 9th graders' subsequent cognitive growth, but we would need a study using longitudinal data to be sure about this."
"An elementary school's mean socioeconomic status appears to have an appreciable effect on both black and white students' cognitive growth, but again we would need longitudinal analyses to be sure about this.''
"The first year of school desegregation usually has small positive effects on black elementary students' reading skills but not on their math skills."
"Twelve years in a predominantly white Northern school probably has a substantial positive effect on black students' achievement."
"We do not know anything reliable about the cumulative impact of desegregated schooling in the South."
And "The effect of desegregated schooling on white students is uncertain."
"This is a rather thin harvest from a quarter century of research," the study says.
"The reason we don't know more is not that the questions are so hard to answer, but that we have not invested much time or money in looking for answers," it adds.
Many of the surveys on which the studies are based fail to gather enough data to answer the types of questions that policymakers should be asking, the authors say.
In addition, they argue that social scientists have few incentives to examine questions that interest public officials and policy analysts, and that to "worry about [such] questions ... is quite risky."
"Because the available data have been limited, there has never been an 'invisible college' of social scientists grappling with the problems of estimating neighborhood effects, encouraging one another to use the best analytic methods, criticizing questionable results before they reach print, or replicating important results after they are in print," the study says.
"Without such an invisible college," it adds, "no field of inquiry makes much progress."
The report recommends both that funding agencies make more money available to collect the appropriate data, and that they encourage talented scholars to analyze the data in such a way that their findings are useful to policy analysts.
The study also describes the methodological flaws that it says are common to much of the existing research and suggests ways these problems could be addressed in future research.
The need for such research is particularly urgent, the researchers note, given rising political pressures to alleviate the shortage of low-income housing.
"At the moment, we have no way of knowing how changes in residential segregation would affect either adults or children," the study says. "This means that there is no chance that near-term changes in government policy will be informed by reliable evidence."
"If we begin better research now," it concludes, "we might have some fairly reliable findings by the turn of the century. If we procrastinate, we will be as ignorant a generation hence as we are now."
The study was funded by Northwestern University's Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research and the Committee on National Urban Policy of the National Research Council.
A summary of the report was published in the March 17 issue of Science magazine; the full report is expected to be released by the National Academy of Sciences later this year.