Student Achievement is More than Academic:
Racial Segregation Across Schools                            


Racial Segregation Impedes Achievement.
 The Supreme Court knew that in 1954, when they found that racially segregated schools inherently deprive specific students the best opportunities to learn. Today, however, almost two-thirds of students of color in the country, with more than  African-American children still go to schools that are “majority minority,” and about 4 of ten sit in classrooms that are 90 to 100 percent minority.[1] Latino students are the most segregatedthree-quarters attending majority-minority schools;[2] many Latino students live and go to school in such highly-segregated communities that they have very little exposure to English.[3] 

Despite the Supreme Court decision and decades of local integration efforts that followed, K-12 public schools remain some of the most segregated institutions in the nation. Evidence is clear, however, that the Supreme Court got it right; racial segregation in schools drives inherently unequal outcomes, and integration is key to closing student achievement gaps. As educators develop programs and policies intended to close student achievement gaps, we must acknowledge the critical role that racial segregation plays in perpetuating inequality.

A large body of research documents the deleterious effects of segregation on the achievement of students of color. For example, even after controlling for family background variables, previous achievement, and peer effects, students assigned to elementary schools with a majority of African-American students are likely to end up with lower test scores, lower grade point averages, and lower placements in secondary school curricular tracks.[4] Minority segregation in schools remains a significant predictor of low graduation rates, even when the effect of several other school indicators is controlled,[5] and dropout levels rise as the level of minority segregation in a school increases.[6] 

The negative impact of segregated schooling continues even after graduation; differences in wages earned by African-American adults from segregated and integrated schools are statistically significant even after controlling for student social and background characteristics.[7] Segregated children grow into segregated adults who are uncomfortable in integrated settings, where most high-quality jobs and higher education opportunities reside.[8] 

Education policymakers who are committed to closing student achievement gaps simply cannot ignore the relationship between racial segregation and student achievement. What was true fifty years ago remains true today: segregated schools deprive specific students of the best opportunities to learn.

Racial Integration Matters for White and Minority Students.  Research not only clarifies the deleterious impact of racial segregation; it also clarifies the extent to which racial integration benefits all students.

  • Academic Benefits of Racial Integration
    • African-American students attending integrated schools, compared to those attending schools with majority-minority populations, are more likely to enter white-collar jobs and have more years of formal education.[9] 
    • Learning in diverse settings encourages complex and critical thinking.[10] For example, one study found that students in racially and ethnically diverse classrooms, “showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation and growth in intellectual and academic skills.”[11]
    • Decreasing the racial isolation of African-American students in school could have a substantial impact on closing achievement gaps. Even when other variables are controlled, desegregation improves the test scores of African-American students and does not adversely impact the performance of white students. One study found that desegregating students in Texas would, by itself, close the test score gap between African-American and white students by 15 percent. [12]
  • Social Benefits of Racial Integration
    • Almost all teachers and about nine out of ten students agree that it is important for students of different racial and ethnic groups to interact, but substantially fewer students and teachers believe that interracial interaction currently occurs in their schools.[13] 
    • Students from every racial and ethnic group who attend integrated schools report a higher level of personal civic engagement than students who attend segregated schools.
    • Cross-race friendships that develop in integrated schools encourage broad, positive attitudes across students of different races,[14] and where different groups have more contact, levels of prejudice are significantly lower than within isolated groups.[15]
    • African-American and white students who attend integrated schools are more likely to have friends from a racial group other than their own, more likely to work in integrated workplaces, more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods, and more likely to favor integrated schools for their own children. These differences persist even when researchers control for socioeconomic status, prior achievement, and student location.[16]
    • White students who attend integrated schools say that their integrated experience better prepared them for work and public life in diverse communities.[17] 

Recent Supreme Court cases have narrowed substantially the ability of states and districts to engage in race-based school assignments. However, specific measures to support integration are still possible, provided that racial considerations do not predominate over non-racial considerations in decision-making. Several districts, for example, have implemented socioeconomic school integration plans. Others have created academic programs such as language immersion or International Baccalaureate to attract white, middle-class families to schools with large percentages of minority students. Districts may also strategically build new schools on borders of traditionally segregated neighborhoods, drawing attendance zones that differ from segregated housing patterns.

As educators, policymakers, and other education stakeholders try to meet the accountability demands placed on public schools, it is important to acknowledge that academic practices are only a part of the solution. The evidence is clear: efforts to close student achievement gaps are fundamentally incomplete unless they confront persistent racial segregation in schools. Schools that intensely stratify students by race simply cannot be effective agents of social equality, and comprehensive policies to support student achievement must include measures to reduce racial segregation within the education system.


[1] Dana Goldstein, “Segregated Schools Leave Children Behind,” The American Prospect, September 19, 2007. www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=segregated_schools_leave_children_behind.

[2] Richard R. Valencia, Martha Menchaca and Ruben Donato, “Segregation, Desegregation, and Integration of Chicano Students: Old and New Realities,” in Chicano School Failure and Success; Past, Present, and Future. 2nd ed. Richard R. Valencia, ed. London: Routledge Falmer, 2002, pp. 70-113; also Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee. 2005. Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

[3] Russell Rumberger, Patricia Gandara, and Barbara Merino, “Where California’s English Learners Attend School and Why it Matters,” UC LMRI Newsletter 15 (2) (2006), 1-2

[4] Roslyn Mickelson, Segregation and the SAT, 67 Ohio St. L.J. 157 (2006); Roslyn Mickelson, “Subverting Swann: First- and Second-Generation Segregation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,” American Educational Research Journal 38 (2001), 215-52.

[5] Christopher Swanson, Who Graduates? Who Doesn’t? A Statistics Portrait of Public High School Graduation, Class of 2001 (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 2004).

[6] Cited in the court proceedings from Jefferson County and Seattle.

[7] Michael Boozer, et al. Race and School Quality since Brown v Board of Education. in Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Microeconomics, ed. Martin Neil Baily and Clifford Winston (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1992): 269-338.

[8] Dana Goldstein. 2007 ibid.

[9] Robert Crain and Jack Strauss. School Desegregation and Black Occupational Attainments: Results from a Long-Term Experiment (Baltimore, MD: Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University, 1985).

[10] John Brandsford and Dan Schwartz, “Rethinking Transfer: A Simple proposal with Multiple Implications,” in Review of Research in Education.  Asghar Iran-Nejad and P. D. Pearson, eds. (Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 1999): 61-101.

[11] Several sources cited in Amici Curiae Brief of 553 social scientists in support of respondents in Seattle and Jefferson county court case.

[12] Eric Hanushek, John Kain, and Steven Rivkin, “New Evidence about Brown v. Board of Education: The Complex Effects of School Racial Composition on Achievement,” Working Paper, National Bureau of Economic Research (Cambridge, MA: NBER, 2006).

[13] Kelly Bagnashi and Marc Scheer, “Brown v Board of Education: Fifty Years Later,” in Trends and Tudes Newsletter of Harris Interactive Youth Research 3 (6) (June 2004)

[14] Shana Levin, Colette van Laar and Jim Sidanius, “The Effects of Ingroup and Outgroup Friendships on Ethnic Attitudes in College: A Longitudinal Study,” Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 6(1) (2003), 76-92

[15] Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp, “A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(2006), 751-83.

[16] Jomills Braddock, Robert Crain, and James McPartland, “A Long-Term View of School Desegregation: Some Recent Studies of Graduations as Adults,” Phi Delta Kappan 66, no. 4, (1984), 259-64. Also Julie E. Kaufman and James Rosenbaum, “The Education and Employment of Low-Income Black Youth in White Suburbs,” Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis 14 (3) (1992), 229-40.

[17] John T. Yun and Michal Kurlaender, “School Racial Composition and Student Educational Aspirations: A Question of Equity in a Multiracial Society,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 9(2) (2004): 143-68.


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