Scholars Make Case for Integration

By Debra Viadero — June 17, 2009 7 min read
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A study presented on Capitol Hill last week provides new evidence that black and Latino children who attend elementary schools with high concentrations of minority students fare worse academically than students being taught in whiter, or more integrated, school settings.

The paper, written by two researchers from Teachers College, Columbia University, was among several studies presented at a June 12 briefing organized by three universities to marshal new ideas and evidence for integrating K-12 schools.

The school desegregation movement suffered the largest in a series of setbacks in 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in cases involving the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., districts to limit the use of race in pupil-assignment plans. (“Race Plans Get Rough Reception,” December 13, 2006.) But advocates and researchers at the meeting implored federal lawmakers to take a stronger hand in promoting integrated schools and gave evidence for other proposals, including cross-district choice plans and income-based integration policies, that might achieve the same ends within the confines of the Supreme Court ruling.

“Segregated schools are systematically unequal, and we believe we have a government and a Congress now that may be ready to think about this,” said Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles, one of the organizers of the briefing. The others were the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the University of Georgia Education Policy and Evaluation Center, in Athens, Ga.; and the Washington-based Forum for Education and Democracy.

Growing Gaps

The Teachers College researchers based their findings on an analysis of more than 9,000 students taking part in the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten, which is following a nationally representative sample of students as they move through school.

The researchers compared the learning gains made in kindergarten and 1st grade by students in schools with enrollments that were 70 percent or more Latino or African-American with those for socioeconomically similar students in “whiter” school settings. The study found that students in the high-minority schools started out behind the students in more-mixed schools in kindergarten, and that those achievement gaps grew over each of those years.

All other things being equal, the study concludes, children in high-minority schools gain fewer mathematics skills in both kindergarten and 1st grade and fewer literacy skills in 1st grade than their counterparts in more-integrated schools.

Over time, the gaps add up, especially for black students, the researchers found. By the time an African-American child leaves 6th grade, the researchers predict, he or she may be as much as 12 months behind a white student from a school with low minority enrollment.

Yet the study also found that, in the summer when students were at home with their families, the type of school they attended made no difference. What little students learned over those months, they learned at the same rate as peers from more-integrated schools.

To Douglas D. Ready, the lead researcher, that pattern of results suggests that the learning disadvantages experienced by the students from the more racially isolated schools stemmed more from their school settings than from any differences in their home backgrounds.

“In a lot of the previous work, you have to wonder: Is it a high-minority-school effect or a neighborhood-family effect?” said Mr. Ready, an assistant professor of education.

New Strategies Needed

His findings run counter to those of a well-known Baltimore study that pinpointed the summer months as the source of much of the achievement gap separating better-off students from their less-advantaged peers. But Mr. Ready said the differing results may be due to differences in the student samples. His study was national in scope, while the Baltimore study focused on one school district where most schools have high minority enrollments.

But some independent experts said Mr. Ready’s results need to be further explored since they are based on data from just one summer.

“The ECLS-K patterns do not unequivocally point to schools as the culprit behind the black/white gap,” writes Douglas B. Downey, who found the same results in his own analysis of the same data. “Blacks clearly trail whites in math and reading skills at the beginning of kindergarten, and so part of the story must be a nonschool story,” added Mr. Downey, a sociologist at The Ohio State University.

Mr. McReady’s research adds to a growing number of studies that suggest students face a learning disadvantage, for whatever reason, in schools with high concentrations of black and Latino students. To address those kinds of inequities among schools, a handful of districts have attempted to make all their schools more diverse by assigning students to schools based on socioeconomic, rather than racial, factors.

But in another paper presented at the Washington meeting, a researcher from UCLA suggests those efforts are having mixed success.

In her study, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a doctoral student, looks in particular at experiments with socioeconomic school-assignment plans in Wake County, N.C., a 138,000-student suburban district outside Raleigh, and in the 7,000-student Cambridge, Mass., district outside Boston.

Amid fears that the courts were beginning to look unfavorably on race-based student-assignment plans, Wake County school officials voted in 2000 to end a busing plan and prohibit any one school from enrolling more than 40 percent of its students from families poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized meals.

After six years under the new system, Ms. Siegel-Hawley found, the number of schools with black and Latino enrollments that were 15 percent lower or higher than the district average had increased, as had the number of schools whose students were primarily white.

Achievement results were more mixed: Low-income and better-off students, including students from most racial and ethnic subgroups, generally outperformed their state peers on state exams, but the subgroups’ performance slipped in 2005-06. And students from low-income families graduated at a slightly lower rate than their state counterparts, according to Ms. Siegel-Hawley’s analysis.

In Cambridge, school officials in 2000 introduced a change to their decades-old “controlled choice” plan that required schools to maintain their enrollments of low-income students within a 15 percentage-point range of the district average.

“Racial balance under some measures has improved,” Ms. Siegel-Hawley writes, but the number of schools with high concentrations of nonwhite students has increased slightly. “And achievement results from the district are hopeful,” she reports, “but also indicate that low-income students in the early grades are underperforming when compared to statewide figures.”

“On the whole, reports from districts using income-based student-assignment plans indicated that [socioeconomic status] works better in some places than in others,” she concludes.

Cooperation in Omaha

Policymakers can also address the problem of racial isolation in schools by forming regional coalitions, said Jennifer Jellison Holme, an assistant professor of educational policy and planning at the University of Texas at Austin.

In her paper, Ms. Holme describes a 2-year-old state initiative requiring 11 public school districts in the metropolitan Omaha, Neb., area to form a cooperative “learning community” to promote integration. Spanning two counties, the districts are governed by a regional council. Through the council, the districts impose taxes and share revenue that they use to create and supervise interdistrict-choice schools and support centers in poor communities.

“This effort is on a new scale and a new dimension,” Ms. Holme said at the briefing. “Segregation has shifted from within-district segregation to between-district segregation, and it really begs for an entirely different kind of solution.”

Other papers offer ideas for establishing a White House office to coordinate school desegregation efforts across the federal government and for federal initiatives to provide subsidies to enable low-income families to move to more-advantaged neighborhoods.

“I’m glad to hear more about incentives and less about top-down efforts,” said Francisco M. Negron Jr., the associate executive director and general counsel of the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va., in commenting on the papers. “If you look at the Supreme Court decision, you’ll see that Justice [Anthony M.] Kennedy was almost urging us to try different things. If we rely on attendance zones, we’ll never achieve the working diversity plans we need.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Scholars Make Case for Integration


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