'Slight' Academic Gains Made by Blacks in Desegregated Schools

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Washington--A panel of six social scientists, brought together by the National Institute of Education (nie), has concluded that black students tend to read and to perform mathematical computations "slightly" better if they are taught in a desegregated setting.

The researchers' estimates of black students's gains in reading ability after one year's attendance at an integrated school ranged from "somewhat less than a month" to about two months. Whether this gain remains constant over a student's academic career is a question on which the scholars differ. They all agreed, however, that students' annual gains in mathematical abilities were much smaller than those in reading.

The panelists, nevertheless, were divided on the significance of those findings, and they did not agree on whether society would benefit if school-desegregation efforts are continued.

Preliminary Findings

The six researchers presented their preliminary findings to a group of Education Department officials and nie staff members here recently. Their papers, when completed, will be included in a monograph that the institute expects to publish by April 1.

The six papers review existing research on the academic effects of school desegregation on black students. According to several sources familiar with the project, it was initiated, at least in part, in order to "clear up" questions raised in some quarters within the institute about the objectivity of prior school-desegregation research sponsored by nie

Specifically, the sources said, some officials who came to nie after the election of President Reagan were "upset" by the findings of a massive, seven-year study spon-sored by the institute that concluded that school desegregation can improve both learning and race relations, provided that certain strategies are adopted.

That study was headed by Willis D. Hawley, dean of the George Peabody College for Teachers at Vanderbilt University. (See Education Week, Sept. 21, 1981).

"A lot of questions about the educational effects of school desegregation have been raised across the country and in the Congress recently, and we felt that this was the proper time to look at the problem and to try to set it to rest," explained Jeffrey M. Schneider, the former team leader for desegregation research at nie

But according to Oscar Uribe, who has replaced Mr. Schneider as team leader for desegregation research at the institute, the problem has been neither "cleared up" nor "set to rest." He said, "The differences in the panel members's findings on student academic gains, and how one chooses to interpret them, would lead to significant differences in any final assessment on whether desegregation has had an overall positive effect."

"The debate right now is how to interpret those findings," Mr. Uribe said.

Mr. Schneider recently left the institute for a position with the Defense Department's office of naval research, but he has agreed to oversee the school-desegregation study until its completion.

According to Mr. Schneider, the scholars--Robert L. Crane of Johns Hopkins University and the Rand Corporation; Paul M. Wortman of the University of Michigan; David J. Armor of David Armor Associates; Norman Miller of the University of Southern California; Walter G. Stephan of New Mexico State University; and Herbert J. Walberg of the University of Chicago--were commissioned by nie to examine existing research on the effects of school desegregation on the academic achievement of blacks and to develop a set of papers clarifying the state of that research.

The panel members, he said were selected on the basis of their prior work in the field, their divergent viewpoints about the academic effects associated with school desegregation, and their knowledge of research methodology. A seventh scholar, Thomas Cook of Northwestern University, was appointed to judge the methodology of the other six panelists' research.

'Accept/Reject Criteria'

The panel convened last July to develop a set of 27 rigorous "accept/reject" criteria by which to judge existing research on the topic, according to Mr. Schneider.

The participants examined 157 studies that had been completed on the topic. Only 19 studies--many of them unpublished doctoral dissertations or master's degree theses written before 1970--were judged methodologically sound and worthy of investigation.

Not all of the scholars were pleased by the decision to base their reviews on such a small sample. "It seems that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that 19 studies is too small a number to draw conclusions about specific types of desegregation plans," said Mr. Crane in his paper.

But, he added, "if the 19 studies are viewed as a random sample of all possible studies of desegregation's effect ..., then the evidence indicates that desegregation is typically beneficial for black achievement."

His finding was suppported by that of Mr. Wortman, who said his review of the 19 studies "indicates about a two-month gain or benefit for a desegregated student."

"The meaning attached to this finding represents a judgment," he continued. "This is where social science ends and social policy begins." However, he added, social scientists have also found it worthy to examine scientific literature on coronary-artery bypass surgery for comparative purposes.

"This is a widely accepted medical procedure that is currently performed on well over 100,000 persons annually at a cost of nearly $2 billion," Mr. Wortman said. "Much of this expense is reimbursed by third-party payers including the federal government. A research synthesis of the higher-quality studies found a benefit ... representing only a 2.4 percent increase in survival rates. This is a modest increase at a considerable social cost when compared to school desegregation."

That interpretation, however, was contested by Mr. Armor, who said that "the overwhelming majority of these studies, taken individually, found no significant effects of desegregation on black achievement."

He said school desegregation resulted in "something less than a month of learning in a single academic year" with respect to reading achievement among blacks, "and for mathematics achievement the effects are virtually nil."

"I conclude, then, that there is no evidence from these studies--the best in the field--that there is a cumulative effect of desegregation. ... Until someone can demonstrate with convincing evidence that there is a larger effect of desegregation than can be found here ... it seems to me that the education field should put less emphasis on desegregation as a means of improving minority achievement."

"In my opinion," Mr. Armor continued, "there is little justification for forcing parents and children into expensive, time-consuming cross-town bus rides when there is no educational advantage."

Mr. Miller of the University of Southern California said the studies "show some small academic benefit to black children when they attend desegregated schools," but "the magnitude of these effects translates into the rather trivial increase of about eight points on the typical sat college-entrance test."

"On the other hand," he continued, "the high likelihood that the same level of performance is evaluated more favorably by the external world if a black student attends a desegregated school as opposed to a segregated school, must be added to this picture. Given equal grade-point averages or achievement-test scores, the black student is likely to be viewed as more capable and promising than his or her peer from a segregated school."

Although Mr. Miller found that the black academic gains associated with school desegregation would equal about an eight-point gain on the sat, Mr. Stephan of Mew Mexico State University found "the effect for verbal achievement would translate into a 17-point increase" on the test "as a consequence of the first year of desegregation." The effect on mathematics achievement, he added, "would translate into a one-point improvement."

According to Mr. Walberg of the University of Chicago, the results suggest that gains in academic achievement fail "to reach conventional levels of statistical significance."

"New techniques of research synthesis show a number of potent factors for improving educational achievement that have proven to be consistently effective in a wide variety of experimental and educational conditions," he said. "These include the amount and quality of instruction, constructive classroom morale, and stimulation in the home environment.

"It is in our national economic, social, and political interest to implement these factors more deeply and widely for all children," he continued. "In this effort, school desegregation does not appear to prove promising in the size or consistency of its effects on learning of black students."

Mr. Hawley of Vanderbilt University, whose study was not one of those reviewed by the six researchers because it did not deal specifically with the question of blacks' educational attainment, disagreed with the researchers' conclusions that the gains were generally insignificant.

"It seems to me that if the studies show a slight across-the-board gain, you'd have to read that as a not-unhappy finding," he said.

In addition, Mr. Hawley joined Mr. Crane in expressing doubts about the researchers' findings because they were based on a sample of only 19 studies.

"The real world is not made up of control groups," he said. "The differences between communities are a very important factor to consider."

Vol. 02, Issue 21

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories