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Minorities Benefit from Integrated Schools

While the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education ordered schools desegregated, many schools remain segregated, and because of that, unequal. A study indicates, though, that minority students learn less in segregated schools. Included: An explanation of how integrated schools benefit minorities.

The issue of school desegregation is once again before the U.S. Supreme Court, and some worry that a court ruling against voluntary integration programs will lead to the further resegregation of U.S. schools.

And minority students in segregated schools do not learn as much as those in integrated schools, according to an extensive report from the Center for American Progress called Lost Learning, Forgotten Promises: A National Analysis of School Racial Segregation, Student Achievement, and Controlled Choice Plans," written by Dr. Douglas N. Harris, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

During his study, Dr. Harris looked at the effects of segregation in more than 22,000 schools across the U.S. that enroll more than 18 million students. The report also indicates that controlled choice -- a type of voluntary desegregation that allows parents some choice about which schools their children will attend -- and other desegregation efforts benefit minority students.

Integration also helps to improve educational equity at little cost, according to the study.

Dr. Harris talked with Education World about the study, and the current trend toward the resegregation of school districts.

Jennifer Stepanek
Dr. Douglas N. Harris

Education World: Why dont minority students perform as well in segregated schools?

Dr. Douglas N. Harris: There are two basic reasons for this: First, high-minority schools receive less funding and have difficulty attracting and retaining quality teachers and administrators.

Second, having classmates who are disadvantaged creates a less positive learning environment. (By disadvantaged," I mean students whose families have less education and income, two factors that are closely related to student educational outcomes.)

In majority white schools, minority student may work harder to keep up with their more advantaged white peers. Also, more advantaged peers may be less likely to create classroom disruptions and better able to help their classmates with homework and so on.

It is important to emphasize that none of these reasons suggest that minority students are any less able to learn than white students. Instead, these explanations suggest that minority students simply learn more when they have more resources, both in terms of teachers and classmates.

It is also worth noting that there is, at least in theory, reason to think that minorities might learn less in majority white schools. Specifically, minorities in majority white schools may feel inferior, become frustrated, or have difficulty interacting with white students who come from different cultural backgrounds. Further, white teachers may expect less of minority students than minority teachers. As the data in my report indicate, these possible negative effects of integration, if they exist, seem to be more than outweighed by the benefits of integration described above.

EW: How has the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act affected the school segregation issue?

Dr. Harris:NCLB says nothing directly about racial integration, but affects the issue in several ways:

  • First, the law shifts attention to measured outcomes such as achievement and away from school resources and student demographics. Implicitly, the assumption of NCLB is that all students should be able to attain basic academic proficiency regardless of the racial composition or any other characteristic of the school.

  • Second, by focusing on outcomes by racial subgroup, the law highlights the large achievement gaps between minority and whites students -- and between high-minority schools and low-minority schools.

    "The basic question is whether minorities are learning in classrooms and schools with white students. They are not and the degree of racial separation is unquestionably growing."
  • Third, the law requires moving students from schools not meeting federal standards to those that do meet federal standards. While few students are moving as a result of this provision, those that do are most likely moving to schools with more advantaged classmates. (I am not aware of any data on this, however, so this is somewhat speculative.)

  • Fourth, NCLB, like desegregation, is race conscious. In the case of desegregation, race is considered when assigning students to schools. With NCLB, schools are evaluated based on whether all racial subgroups make adequate yearly progress. In this sense, NCLB affirms the importance of the large achievement gaps that remain between minorities and whites. It also affirms the idea of considering race in addressing these gaps. Given the persistently strong relationship between school demographics and students test scores, and the evidence that integration has educational benefits for minorities, policymakers may return to the idea of integration as a solution to the problem.

    Finally, it is worth noting some preliminary evidence that NCLB and related forms of test-based accountability benefit minority students and reduce achievement gaps. The evidence is not clear cut, and there is considerable debate about the negative side effects of a test-based school culture, but there are nonetheless some positive signs. This means that accountability and desegregation may both be beneficial for minority students.

    EW: What do you consider the best approach to decreasing segregation in schools?

    Dr. Harris: Research suggests that court-ordered desegregation is not as effective as programs created voluntarily by governments and politicians. This makes sense. Without community support, such a policy is likely to be undermined. But the court-ordered approach is largely irrelevant today because, as noted above, the court has significantly limited the ways in which courts can require integration.

    As of today, school districts may choose to integrate on their own, as Louisville, Kentucky; Seattle, Washington; and other districts have done. However, the options open to districts are likely to decline further after the Supreme Court rules in the coming months on controlled choice." It is widely expected that the Court will rule against these programs. If so, one option will be for districts to consider student income, instead of race, when assigning students. It is also likely that the Courts ruling will still allow districts to consider race in ways similar to college admissions, but these levers are more limited and, even if districts chose to pursue them, it will not be enough to keep the level of segregation from continuing to grow.

    EW: Over the past 15 years, have U.S. schools grown more or less segregated? Why?

    Dr. Harris: There is general agreement that schools are becoming somewhat more racially segregated, though this depends partly on how that is measured. The standard measure looks at the racial distribution of schools compared with the racial composition of a larger geographic area, e.g., a whole state. By this measure, there is no question that schools are gradually resegregating.

    "Minority students simply learn more when they have more resources, both in terms of teachers and classmates."
    Critics counter that this is the wrong measure because there is no way that schools would ever be integrated over such a large area -- that is, students would not be bused from one end of the state to the other to go to school each day. The critics therefore argue that the better measure is segregation within school districts. The problem with this argument, however, is that, because of white flight, most racial segregation occurs across districts -- most large urban districts are heavily minority and most suburban districts are heavily white. Therefore, in Detroit, Michigan, for example, a school would be considered integrated" even if 90 percent of the students in every school were minorities. In any event, by this within-district measure, there is less segregation and the level has been relatively stable in recent years.

    But there is a good reason why most researchers and commentators prefer the broad (statewide) measures instead. The basic question is whether minorities are learning in classrooms and schools with white students. They are not and the degree of racial separation is unquestionably growing.

    EW: What has hindered further integration of American schools since the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education court decision?

    Dr. Harris: There are two parts to the answer. First, while most Americans say they want some degree of racial integration, people of all racial groups are reluctant to be in the minority" in a given school or neighborhood. So, the tendency of housing markets, and therefore of school racial composition, is toward separation of racial groups. The short-term effect of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was to reduce the influence of markets which made some degree of integration possible by force of law.

    Housing markets, along with subsequent court decisions, further reduced the possibility of integration in the long run. Many white families left cities to move to the suburbs -- white flight" -- though there is some debate about how much of this was caused by Brown and the racial integration of schools. Further, the courts decision in the 1974 case Milliken vs. Bradley said that racial integration could not be required across school district boundaries. So, parents could move to the suburbs and avoid integration altogether. This worsened white flight by guaranteeing that white parents who preferred that their children have white classmates could avoid court-ordered integration by moving to the suburbs.

    Court decisions during the 1990s have further eroded legal requirements for integration even within school districts. As a result of these decisions, school districts are no longer responsible for school segregation that arises as a result of housing markets within their boundaries. For example, suppose a district draws attendance boundaries to integrate schools and that, as a result, families decide to move (for any reason) to other neighborhoods within the district. If these moves result in resegregation of schools, then the district is under no obligation to change the attendance boundaries or to implement any other policy that would integrate the schools. As a result, many districts that originally faced court-ordered desegregation are having these requirements eliminated by lower courts that are following the Supreme Courts lead.

    This e-interview with Dr. Douglas N. Harris is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


    Article by Ellen R. Delisio
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2007 Education World

    Published 02/14/2007