Education Chat

School Desegregation Research and the Supreme Court

Our guests took questions about school desegregation, the Supreme Court's recent ruling, and what it means for researchers and advocates of race-based policies.

September 6, 2007

The Supreme Court’s School Desegregation Ruling: Research, Advocacy, and the Future of Race-Based Assignment Policies

Gary Orfield
, a professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, helped found The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto de Derechos Civiles, an organization focused on racial justice, which this week is releasing the latest in a long series of reports in support of race-based assignment; and Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education and chair of the Research and Evaluation Methodology program area at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is president of the National Academy of Education, which in June released a major analysis outlining the research as it relates to the policies challenged in the court cases.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s live chat with Gary Orfield and Lorrie Shepard. Thanks for joining us. I’m Janelle Callahan, a research associate in the EPE Research Center, and I’ll be your moderator. Our chat today is about the social science research that informed the Supreme Court’s decision on cases involving the use of race-conscious policies, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. We’ll also talk about the implications of the court’s decision for school desegregation researchers and advocates in the road ahead.

Question from Janelle Callahan:

Lorrie, you’re president of the National Academy of Education, which released a report this summer outlining the research as it relates to the policies challenged in the court cases. Why did your organization decide to produce this report? What were its biggest findings?

Lorrie Shepard:

The National Academy of Education decided to create a study committee to develop a summary and analysis of the social science research presented in the amicus briefs submitted to the Court. We did so because of the importance of the cases to public education and because a great deal of research had been collected and analyzed in the briefs presented to the Court. The report was released the day after the Court’s decision. Aggregated across hundreds of studies cited in the amicus briefs, the main findings are as follows: 1. Desegregation tends not to affect the achievement of White students, but it fairly consistently improves the achievement of African American students. 2. Group relations also tend to be improved by desegregation, and the research literature documents the constructive things schools can do to improve race relations. 3. Studies of long-term effects also show greater tolerance and better intergroup relations among adults who have attended desegregated schools. 4. Research studies addressing the “critical mass” question does not support the conclusion that any particular percent enrollment is sufficient to avoid the harms associated with racial isolation, such as tokenism and stereotype threat. But the body of research does offer some guidelines, suggesting a racial diversity target in the range from 15% to 30%. 5. Knowing both the legal and moral concerns associated with race-based policies, a number of researchers have investigated “race-neutral” means for trying to achieve racial diversity. Unfortunately, even school assignment policies based on socioeconomic status, which is the most likely race-neutral alternative, are likely to do poor job of reducing racial segregation in many school districts. The full National Academy of Education report can be accessed at

Question from Janelle Callahan:

Gary, you’ve been involved in desegregation research and advocacy efforts for decades. How did your research and the work by others inform the recent decision? What does the decision mean for your work now?

Gary Orfield:

The Court split three ways with four Justices strongly supporting voluntary desegregation efforts and relying to a considerable extent on the research we and other social scientists have done. Four Justices were clearly opposed and claimed that the social science was unclear and largely irrelevant and the ninth Justice, Anthony Kennedy took and intermediate position, supporting the end, but rejecting many of the means, and did not directly discuss the evidence. The decision means that we will try to help school districts develop means to analyze what would still be legal in their voluntary efforts and how various plans might work in their situation. We will, of course, continue to do more basic research as well.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

We’re getting lots of questions, so let’s get right to them.

Question from Faye B.:

What outcomes is your research considering to prove the effectiveness of race-based policies? Does any of the research address whether or not the race-based policies have any type of negative psychological effects on students?

Lorrie Shepard:

As outlined in my answer to the first question, the Academy report looked at outcomes dealing with achievement, with intergroup relations both short term and long term, and with effects of racial isolation such as stereotype threat. Of course, in any real-world setting dealing with people, there will always be a range of outcomes and experiences. So there had to be some individuals who had some negative results (e.g., lower achievement, or poorer attitudes). But the predominant findings were of positive outcomes. The four so-called “Allport conditions” for positive intergroup-relations are as follows: (1) Equal status of all group members, (2) cooperative interdependence among group members, (3) normative support of positive relations and of equal status, and (4) interactions that disconfirm stereotypes and encourage understandings of other group members as individuals. As you can probably imagine, some school environments can be so hostile and internally segregated that they can lead to exacerbated prejudices. This is why research consistently points to the need to create these positive conditions in addition to creating the basic integrated school environment.

Question from Susan Uchitelle, Chairperson, Confluence Academy:

Gary: Under these circumstances what are you proposing for the next era of equality under the law. There must be a creative way to move ahead.

Gary Orfield:

Civil rights advocates have been pushed into a defensive posture and must think both about immediate challenges and about what need be done in the long run. Right now there are ways in Kennedy’s opinion that can sustain some forms of voluntary integration, using multiple criteria for choice plans. Researchers, educators and civil rights groups need to work together. In the longer run, we need to identify and document the best examples of real solutions, such as the voluntary metropolitan plan you ran so well in metro St. Louis, and go back to the courts, and to Congress explaining the costs of letting segregation spread on a metro scale and the tremendous benefits of preparing students for a society in which there will be no racial majority.

Question from David Crawmer, Pres. Capitol District Citizens for Educational Freedom:

Given the predictable ineffectiveness of being compelled to diversify and the history of measures like Brown v Board why is it that researchers seem blind to the most obvious solution of giving individuals the right to choose their educational environment?

Lorrie Shepard:

The job of the researchers is to design carefully controlled studies and to gather data on the effects of various policies. In the original Brown v Board case, early research in this field suggested some of the harms we now associate with segregation and helped inform the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the idea that African American students were receiving an equal education. Today, the evidence from hundreds of studies documents, among other things, on average higher achievement in desegregated schools.Unfettered school choice may have other benefits such as parent satisfaction, but research has not yet demonstrated a practically significant achievement gain (on average) and the policy tends to increase levels of segregation.

Question from karen green:

Does research suggest that children of a certain race feel more comfortable and have more positive perception of themselves when taught by a teacher of their own race or ethnicity? if yes, should children not be forced to attend integrated schools?

Gary Orfield:

This case was about voluntary integration. Almost all plans since 1980 have a heavy basis in choice, not mandatory assignments and good desegregation plans tried to desegregate teachers as well as students so that students could have both desegregation and teachers of their own race as well as other races.

Question from Anja Vink, education journalist from Amsterdam, the Netherlands:

Isn’t time to look at the real reason of the achivement gap, the socio economic background of children? There are succesfull examples in the USA, like Wake County(NC) and Cambridige(MA) that base desegregation on socio economic standards. Why still focus on race??

Lorrie Shepard:

The Academy panel examined the studies where socioeconomic factors were used instead of race. Socioeconomic diversity is a valued end in its own right and use of this criterion will mitigate racial segregation a little; but socioeconomic status alone has only a small impact on reducing racial segregation.

Question from Linda Smith Kortemeyer, Board Secretary; Davenport Community School District:

How does this ruling affect school districts who use ratios which are figured on the community composition outlined in their voluntary desegregation policy to deny open enrollment out to other districts? Are school districts allowed to limit students from leaving a building if the transfer out would affect the racial balance of the school and increase ratios that don’t reflect the makeup of the community?

Lorrie Shepard:

Ratios based on community composition require consideration of individual students’ race in the decision process and therefore would come within the scope of the Court’s decision.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

We’ve received several questions about the practical implications of the decision. Some of you may be interested in an chat that took place on July 19, “The Supreme Court’s Impact on School Policies,” which focused on general implementation issues from a legal perspective. You can read the chat transcript at:

Question from Cheryl Jaffe, Radar Engineer/Math Teacher/Mother:

I hear talk about an “achievement gap”, but I don’t believe there is an *ability* gap. My (very limited) understanding of the “achievement gap” is that it is defined by test scores. Is this the wrong metric?

Gary Orfield:

Test scores are too narrow a metric but one important indicator. It is interesting to note that the black-white test score gap declined sharply during the desegregation era, when there were anti-poverty and other programs and school integration reached its peak but that the current policies have had little impact on that gap.

Question from Sheneka Williams, Policy Research Fellow, University of Georgia:

How will the Court’s decision impact the role of magnet schools as a desegregation tool?

Lorrie Shepard:

The Academy report devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 6) to Race-Neutral Alternatives for achieving racial diversity in school enrollments. Chief among these is the use of School Choice and Magnet Schools. There is a significant body of research addressing this question, including the recent study by Saporito and Sohoni (2006) analyzing data from the 22 largest U.S. school districts. What is perhaps surprising from this research is the general finding that choice and magnet schools do NOT reduce segregation. In fact, they tend to increase segregation unless race-conscious policies are used for selecting students. (That is, the research points out the difference between choice policies that are unconstrained and choice policies that are specifically designed to include constraints that will help enrollments reflect the community around the school.) The Court’s decision will prevent choice and magnet schools from voluntarily using race as a criterion for choosing among applicants. Magnet and choice schools could use socioeconomic factors as part of their selection process. This would help slightly with efforts to ensure racial diversity in schools.

Question from Jack L. Daniel, Professor, University of Pittsburgh:

How is the concept of “racial” justice confounded by the fact that increasingly, for example, just who is an African American is hard to determine?

Gary Orfield:

The hostile Justice on the Court pointed out how complex race has become in America and it is true that it is far more complicated but that the vast majority of Americans are clear about their racial identity and only 2% said they were multiracial in the 2000 Census. I believe that multiracial students do have special issues, some of which are discussed in a chapter in our new book, LESSONS IN INTEGRATION (Frankenberg & Orfield) but that this is not a major obstacle to desegregation plans.

Question from David Genova, Teacher, North Carolina Outward Bound School and Unity Project Founder:

After Brown, why were Teachers not given the training and continue to receive little to no training in diversity, cultural sensitivity and social justice? This may have been a set-up for failure from the beginning. If true, it is a sad testament to our nation.

Lorrie Shepard:

I agree that teachers need training to address the needs of students in their classrooms, especially when students’ cultural and language backgrounds are different from their own. Practicum and student teaching experiences in diverse settings are increasingly required for successful accreditation of teacher preparation programs. I do not believe, however, that teacher training alone will be sufficient to address the increasing gaps in the quality of education provided in our increasingly segregated urban schools.The issue of Brown’s successes and failures is a very complicated one. The case stands as a landmark that has affected many, many areas of the nation’s schools, including the education of students with special needs and English language learners, as well as other equity issues such as school finance. But the Court’s decision was not self-executing. As Gary has documented, some school districts did a much better job than others in pursuing desegregation and in maintaining a commitment to the reform. The reform played out in Boston very differently than it played out in Charlotte or Louisville.

Question from Michelle Thorne, Student:

As a person of color, who attended all-white schools throughout my entire K-12 education, I can attest to the fact there is indeed a psychological impact this has. Particularily schools with student bodies that don’t welcome, but rather marginalize, students of color. What best practices have you seen in regards to integration strategies as tethered to desegregation plans?

Gary Orfield:

Desegreation is just a step toward the ultimate goal of true integration which requires substantial presence of students and faculty from each group and equal status treatment in all aspects of school operation and treatment. Teacher and staff training in understanding each other’s background and in techniques to positively manage interracial settings are very important. Unfortunately the federal desegregation aid program that funded such efforts was killed during the Reagan administration and these issues are largely neglected. They are vital issues for a society which already has 43% students of color and for thousands of suburbs which will become multiracial

Question from John, private citizen from Cincinnati:

Is there research that isolates the effect of race, independent of associated factors like socioeconomic status, in producing educational benefits at the k-12 level?

Lorrie Shepard:

Hanushek and colleagues conducted analyses using a large-scale longitudinal data base on student achievement in Texas. They were able to disentagle the effects of socioeconomic status and race and found that, even after controlling for socioeconomic factors, the proportion of African American students in a school negatively affects their mathematics achievement growth. This was particularly true for higher-achieving African American students.

Question from Kathy Brown, Parent, Warner Robins Ga.:

If we know relationships are more likely to develop between groups who are similiar and/or in close proximity to each other how can anyone honestly expect to achieve a nonbiased cohesive society if we have segregated groups whose paths may never cross...and if their paths never cross doesn’t that make it highly unlikely the groups will get to know that they are probably more similar than different?

Lorrie Shepard:

A great number of studies have looked at the questions you raise about group relations in segregated versus integrated settings. In the short term and later in adulthood, there is greater tolerance and better group relations among individuals who attended desegregated or otherwise integrated schools. The likelihood of positive intergroup relations is even greater in schools where conscious efforts are made to support equal status and cooperation.

Question from Jacqueline Grazette, American Goverment and African American History instructor, journalist, St. Albans School, Washington, D.C.:

The Supreme Court decision definitely lends a blow to efforts to desegregate schools. Yet sometimes I wonder, are school desegregation efforts doomed to failure if we do not have a corresponding desegregation effort in housing? Most kids want to go to schools in their neighborhood; most neighborhoods in America remain segregated. Until we address those factors that keep neighborhoods so intensely segregated, are we expecting too much of either the Supreme Court or school systems to end this separation?

Gary Orfield:

We would be much better off if housing and school issues were addressed together. Although housing discrimination has been illegal since l968 there has never been substantial enforcement and the pattern of housing discrimination has spread well into suburban rings and is increasing for Latino families. For a discussion f the housing dimensions, see chapter ll in DISMANTLING DESEGREGATION (Orfield & Eaton, New Press)

Question from Carl Williams, Coordinator Minority Teacher Recruitment, Jefferson County Public Schools - Louisville, KY:

What do you think is the best alternative to race based student assignment that will also accomplish diversity?

Gary Orfield:

The best alternative is one that works in the local circumstances. Because of the incredible diversity of racial composition, residential segregation, success of existing voluntary transfer efforts, economic and other indicators, this is a question that requires very serious analysis at the district level. We plan to try to help districts with that challenge. One central concern should be to try to find mechanisms that preserve as many as possible of the positive settings that already exist since all major changes of assignment patterns are very difficult, particularly in the first year. We are working with the NAACP Legal Defense fund on a handbook that will outline the legal parameters.

Question from Beverly Barkon, Associate Professor, Carlow University:

How do you see the Supreme Court decision impacting the reauthorized NCLB? Please be as specific as possible.

Lorrie Shepard:

I do not see any serious impact since the race-conscious elements of the NCLB (especially subgroup accountability) appear to have been distinguished from student assignment issues even by the four most critical judges and there really were not any intentional integration elements in the act. The new draft bill continues the respect for existing desegregation plans and orders and existing court orders are not, in any case, subject to the provisions of the new decision.

Question from Rhodell J Fields, Retired Professor, Public Policy, St. Petersburg College:

Research findings are impressive but less tha significant in view of Court rulings that eat away at the notion of “integration.” Given the persistence of public school funding based on residential patterns and property values, IS it not time to look at how public schools are funded? The “social benefits of school diversity for students” occurs at the post-secondary level.

Gary Orfield:

The Supreme Court in the Rodriguez decision held that there is no federal right to equal funding but this issue has been litigated in most states and in some massive remedies have been ordered. Funding is, of course, a very important issue and some of the recent adequacy cases make the argument that more than equal funding is essential to any effort to try to equalize high poverty segregated schools. In our book on metropolitan Atlanta, where funding was higher for the city than the suburbs for a long time, we found that race and poverty segregation still mattered very much. (THE CLOSING DOOR (Orfield & Ashkinaze). Diversity benefits clearly occur well before college and early desegregation can be especially important. On the website of our project ( you can find the brief signed by 553 social scientists on what research has shown over the past decades.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

Education Week’s ongoing coverage of the Supreme Court and school desegregation can be accessed here:

Question from Sandra Kopels, Professor, UIUC:

Does this ruling impact bilingual education?

Gary Orfield:

Great question. Assigning students to school on the basis of ELL status or other language related variables is not affected in any way by this decision, which only imposes barriers to the use of race, at least as a sole criterion. Patricia Gandara (Civil Rights Project co-director) and I think that districts with substantial language minority populations should now take a serious took at creating or expanding dual immersion programs that bring together fluent speakers of English and another language in a positive desegregated setting that aims at creating dual fluency and high academic standards. This is a form of desgregation that is certainly legal and research has shown substantial benefits.

Question from Francis Gardner, Emeritus Professor of Biology, CSU:

A series of recent articles examines extensively the role and impact of subjectivity and bias in all scientific research, especially the hard sciences,( Keeping this in mind, what level of confidence can we place on the sociological research (so called soft sciences) often cited to support race-based assignment in schools to increase diversity or claims of its positive effects (and/or negative effects) on education?

Lorrie Shepard:

Social science researchers and philosophers of science have been aware for many decades of the influence of perspective on research methods and research conclusions. Most social science researchers do a good job of making clear what perspectives are being brought to bear in designing their studies and they build in safe-guards that check for inter-rater reliability and the validity of research instruments. While you may be concerned about the findings from any one study, if you suspect that a particular researcher might be overzealous, it is hard to argue that research syntheses based on many hundreds of studies would all share the same bias. In the case of the research summarized in the Academy report, it would be especially hard to argue that all the researchers shared the same preconceptions because the studies are remarkably multi-disciplinary, representing the work of economists, sociologists, social psychologists, political scientists, evaluators, and policy analysts.

Question from Gina Umpstead, PhD student, Michigan State University:

Gary, You mentioned that 4 justices thought the research presented wasn’t relevent, but do you think the decision leaves open the possibility of school plans that more specifically consider the findings of research -- such as the 15 to 30% range that Lorrie mentioned -- could be upheld as constitutional?

Gary Orfield:

I have not read Lorrie’s response but I definitely think that research on outcomes will be one element in judicial consideration of new plans. A policy that directly required a certain racial ratio outside of a court-ordered setting and used it to assign students solely on that criteria would not succeed under this court order though such a ratio in terms of other variables would be legal

Question from NormaShapiro, ACLU of MA, Legislative Dir.:

Are there bibliographies available that could help advocates for diversity develop fact-based fact sheets to inform legislators and the public re: value of race-conscious policies?

Lorrie Shepard:

The Academy report has a very useful set of references, representing the most important single studies and reviews cited in the amicus briefs. For legislators and the public, the Executive Summary of the NAEd report might be especially helpful. Again the Academy report can be accessed at The amicus briefs prepared by the American Educational Research Association and by Gary Orfield are also quite good.

Question from Lee R. McMurrin,Retired Supt.,Milwaukee Public Schools:

Dr. Orfield, How can some of the suggestions of the court such as: placement of new schools, gerrymanding attendence areas. and social economic statis ever work?

Gary Orfield:

In small districts with relatively stable residential populations the kinds of things Justice Kennedy’s opinion clearly authorized can be very beneficial. In districts with just two major groups and very large economic gaps between them, SES desegregation is most likely to work. Raleigh (Wake County), experience is worth a close look for such districts. There is a chapter on that experience in Boger & Orfield, SCHOOL RESEGREGATION: MUST THE SOUTH TURN BACK? (UNC PRESS)

Question from Gary Shaffer, faculty, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work:

Even in schools that are demographically integrated, segregation with the schools exist. Students of different races, attend classes, participate in clubs and sports and attend school events in ways that seregate them from other students. How can a situation like this be addressed by a court decision one way or the other.

Gary Orfield:

During the period of active desegregation efforts by the courts there were strong efforts in some districts and schools to integrate activities, student government, etc. and some plans and orders did focus on classroom segregation though that never became part of the general law or regulation in the area. I think that this was unfortuate and it is very unlikely that we are going to see courts breaking new ground in civil rights in the near future. I think it is very important to help educators address this issue and to consider the large educational and social benefits that can be achieved when large groups of studnets are no longer confined to dead end curricula. The remarkable work of Carol Corbett Burris in Rockville Center, NY,reported in the LESSONS IN INTEGRATION book should inspire similar efforts

Question from Policy Analyst:

Do you think that by focusing on desegregation as a change lever takes emphasis away from creating equity and quality education in all schools- including those with high minority populations?

Lorrie Shepard:

What the research synthesis demonstrates is that increasing racial diversity in school enrollments is a means for increasing both equity and quality. Therefore, I believe you may be implying a false dichotomy. Most current efforts for improving education do focus on quality (and arguably on equity). They have been successful in some cases, but most analysts agree that they have been insufficient, given the scale of problems to be addressed. In settings facing the additional impacts of hyper-segregated schools, it behooves policymakers to consider all of the policy tools available to address both equity and quality and racial diversity.

Question from Laura McBain, Policy Director, HTH:

If race can no longer be used to achieve racial diversity, what other factors or indicators should schools use to achieve racial diversity? What does the research suggest?

Gary Orfield:

poverty, test scores, geographic segregation, ELL status or home language, residence in subsidized housing, attendance in a school failing AYP in NCLB and many other measures of inequality deserve attention and so do efforts to use race as one of a series of factors, as the Supreme Court approved for college admissions.

Question from Terrye Seckinger SC Education Commissioner:

We seem to be so focused on “diversity” and not with “competency” It doesn’t matter to me what demographic is in the classroom, what DOES matter is their willingness to learn. Quotas based on race, not competency, are unfair. I support the Court’s decision. I hope it will place students (of all races and ethnicity) in our classes who are “ready to learn” without those who only want to be disruptive.

Lorrie Shepard:

Mountains of data demonstrate that opportunities for that good education are not equitably distributed for all those students who want it. Unfortunately, segregated schools were shown more than 50 years ago to be unequal and are found still today to be grossly unequal. The resources and quality of teaching provided to students in hyper-segregated (90%) African American schools in your state and every state tend to be woefully inadequate. Therefore, it cannot be claimed that those children are being provided the opportunity they deserve. In addition, if educators assume that children of color don’t WANT to learn, when in fact they haven’t been given equitable opportunities to learn, then those children are doubly harmed by that bigotry.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

Thank you for joining our chat today. And we especially thank our guests, Gary Orfield and Lorrie Shepard, for taking the time to respond to some important questions about school desegregation research and the Supreme Court decision. This chat is now over. A transcript will be posted shortly on

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