Equity & Diversity

An Expansive Look at School Segregation Shows It’s Getting Worse

By Eesha Pendharkar — June 03, 2022 4 min read
African American Girl holding book and reading in an elementary school lesson
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School segregation has increased in the last 30 years, especially in the 100 largest districts that enroll about 40 percent of the nation’s K-12 population.

While the overall public school population has increased in diversity, and a majority of students are now nonwhite, schools remain highly segregated by race, ethnicity, and economic status, according to a newly released report by researchers from the University of Southern California and Stanford University.

Segregation—both economic and racial—has been long linked to differences in test scores and educational opportunities in public education. In districts that are more segregated, systems may be providing unequal educational opportunities to white and Black students. In large districts like those in the District of Columbia and Atlanta, for example, the achievement gap gets a lot bigger from 3rd to 8th grade because white and Black students are attending different schools and getting access to teachers with different levels of experience or skills, said Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University and a study author. Black students are attending schools in those districts that are much higher in poverty than white students and that tend to have fewer resources available.

“Segregation is still producing unequal learning opportunities for students, even in the modern era,” Reardon said. “And so the fact that segregation is growing then raises red flags.”

Researchers changed the lens on segregation

The researchers measured segregation by gauging how evenly students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds are distributed among schools given the racial composition of the district, according to Reardon. That way, the research removes the focus on the overall racial demographics of a district or school and puts it on how unevenly distributed students are within that district or school.

For example, white-Black segregation measures how different the composition of an average Black student’s class or school is relative to the average white student’s class or school.

Within the same district, the researchers calculated the proportion of white students compared to the total of white and Black students, and compared that to the proportion of Black students relative to to white and Black students.

Based on those calculations, they found that white-Black segregation nationwide still remains higher than any other racial or ethnic group combination, but has not changed significantly since 2000. From 1990 to 2000, the level of Black-white segregation increased by 4 percent, then decreased in the 2000s but slightly went up again in the 2010s.

In 2020, the proportion of white students relative to Black students in the average white student’s school was 0.52 (on a scale of 0 to 1) higher than it was in the average Black student’s school, the report found.

The level of white-Asian segregation is lower than segregation between other groups even though it increased the most over the last three decades, by 27 percent.

White-Hispanic segregation was the highest in 1991, but it decreased by 10 percent by 2020 from that peak.

The researchers also looked at segregation by income level and found that in the largest 100 districts, economic segregation has increased nearly 50 percent since 1991 and over 30 percent since 1998.

“If you just sort of pick a random white and Black student from anywhere in the country or a random poor and nonpoor student, they tend to go to pretty different schools, but a lot of that is because they live in different school districts. They live in different states,” Reardon said. “So a lot of this national pattern of segregation is because of regional concentrations of students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds and then even within regions, residential segregation between school districts.”

The marked increase in segregation over the last 30 years in the 100 largest districts “means that students of different racial, ethnic or economic backgrounds are increasingly going to separate schools, even in the same district,” Reardon said. “And that surprised us, I think, in terms of the magnitude of that trend.”

In the largest 100 districts, the level of white-Asian segregation more than doubled and white-Hispanic segregation increased until the late 2000s and was 7 percent lower in 2020 than in 2010. Economic segregation also increased by 47 percent.

White-Black segregation presented the starkest contrast, and it increased by 35 percent from 1991 to 2020 in the 100 largest districts.

The bulk of segregation in the United States is still from district-to-district, because districts disproportionately enroll different demographics of students, which can be linked to broader geographical segregation, the report says. But within large school district boundaries, some neighborhoods tend to be richer and more white than others and those tend to get an influx of resources and better teachers, Reardon said.

Districts can attempt to reconfigure the demographics of each school, but dramatically reducing school segregation is going to be a challenge without also changing residential patterns, which are driven by racial and economic disparities, Reardon said.

“I don’t want to say schools can’t do anything, but I also don’t want us to think we can just fix the segregation problem with schools.” he said.

“The safe place for society to solve its problems is with children because it doesn’t ask much of adults. But it turns out, it’s not fair nor fully effective,” Reardon continued. “I think the bigger structural, racial, economic disparities and inequalities in American society also have to be addressed.”

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