Study Finds No Upswing in Racially Isolated Schools

By Holly Kurtz — March 25, 2014 4 min read
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Carmen Arace Middle School in Bloomfield, Conn., is 88 percent black.

Using one type of school segregation measurement, Arace could be considered racially segregated because black students there share the school with relatively few students of other races. This type of indicator is known as an “exposure” or “isolation” index because it gauges whether the school’s demographics promote isolation or exposure among students of different races.

However, this picture changes when segregation is examined against different yardsticks. “Evenness” indicators quantify the degree to which students of different races are evenly distributed among schools in an area. Such measures might suggest that Arace is not racially segregated because its demographics are in line with the overall makeup of the 2,087-student Bloomfield district, which is 72 percent African-American.

These two measurement types—racial isolation/exposure versus evenness—are at the crux of an academic debate over whether the level of school segregation has changed since the early 1970s, when post-Brown v. Board of Education desegregation activity slowed.

In a research synthesis scheduled to appear in the peer-refereed Annual Review of Sociology in July, sociologists Sean Reardon of Stanford University and Ann Owens of the University of Southern California find that the average levels of American school segregation by race have barely budged since the 1980s.

They base these findings on a review of more than 100 studies, some of which examined evenness, some which examined isolation and exposure, and some that looked at both. They conclude that “changes in segregation in the last few decades are not large, regardless of what measure is used, though there are important differences in the trends across regions, racial groups, and institutional levels.”

Definitions and Demographics

For example, segregation has increased in districts where desegregation orders ended. But overall, Mr. Reardon and Ms. Owens find that it has stayed relatively stable, if disputed.

“Although there is disagreement about the direction of more recent trends in racial segregation, this disagreement is largely driven by different definitions of segregation and different ways of measuring it,” Mr. Reardon and Ms. Owens write. “There have been modest decreases in the exposure of minorities to whites, but these have been driven primarily by demographic changes in the school-age population.”

Between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of U.S. children who are white declined from 74 percent to 54 percent, according to Child Trends, a nonpartisan research organization in Bethesda, Md. Over that time, the population of black children held steady at 15 percent, while the share of Hispanic children grew from 9 percent to 24 percent.

In a response to Mr. Reardon and Ms. Owens, Gary Orfield, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, and John Kucsera of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles, muster evidence from 17 years of data from their own organization and others to argue that black and Latino students are more segregated today than they were a generation ago. Eight studies in the review were published by the project.

The conclusions in the response are largely based on measures of exposure and isolation. Although the Civil Rights Project authors have examined evenness in several studies, they suggest that such measures can yield misleading results, especially when used to simultaneously assess the segregation levels of multiple racial groups within a metropolitan area. They say it’s also misleading to apply evenness measures to small, highly segregated jurisdictions, like central cities.

Choosing a Measure

While proponents of integrated schooling cite its social and educational benefits, Mr. Reardon and Ms. Owens, in their review, find limited evidence on how or why racial segregation might worsen or help educational inequalities. They contend that it is difficult to know which measures to use under which conditions. For instance, if contact among people of different races is the active ingredient in school desegregation efforts, then measures of isolation and exposure are central. But evenness might be important if what matters most is evenly distributing resources to schools.

In response to Mr. Reardon and Ms. Owens, the Civil Rights Project authors assert that the benefits of desegregation stem from interracial contact and experiences within schools, which makes isolation and exposure more important measures to use. They were especially critical of evenness measures that concluded that desegregation was decreasing because of the proportionate distribution of multiple historically disadvantaged groups, such as Latinos and African-Americans.

One report in the review that used such an evenness measure (called a “dissimilarity index”) was a 2012 study of residential segregation by the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank in New York. It concluded that, nationwide, neighborhood segregation had declined significantly since 1970.

Richard Rothstein of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, criticized both the Manhattan Institute report and the dissimilarity index.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to think of schools that are composed of low-income blacks and low-income Latinos as integrated,” he said.

While Mr. Reardon and Ms. Owens did find “limited evidence” that economic school segregation had increased by 1990, Mr. Rothstein said research suggests that race plays a role beyond poverty, especially for black students.

“You’re not going to improve the outcomes of black students by putting them into a school with primarily low-income Latino students,” he said. “The only integration program that will likely improve the outcomes of low-income black students is to put them in schools with middle-class students.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Study Finds No Upswing in Racially Isolated Schools


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