When we look at our data, there's no school district in the United States out of the thousands and thousands that has even moderately high segregation that doesn't have a large achievement gap.
Earlier this week, Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon and some colleagues released a report using massive amounts of test-score data to investigate the effects of modern-day racial segregation. After Southern schools were desegregated in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, test-score gaps between black and white students decreased. But with the decline of court-ordered integration, racial segregation in schools returned and has remained at high levels since the 1980s. The question the study set out to investigate is: does racial segregation still matter?
The answer, Reardon and his colleagues say, is yes. School systems that are more segregated have larger achievement gaps, and “their gaps grow faster during elementary and middle schools than in less segregated ones.” But it’s not because of race per se. The real problem, the researchers conclude, is poverty.
Here’s a tale of three cities: Atlanta, New York and Detroit.
In all three cities, there is a high degree of racial segregation in the schools. White students go to schools with relatively few black and Hispanic students. Black and Hispanic students attend schools that don’t have many white students. When Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University, measures the racial isolation in a quantitative way, he finds that the schools in the three cities are “equally racially segregated.”
But the poverty rates in the schools are very different. In Atlanta, blacks students go to schools with very high poverty rates. The students in these schools tend to come from families whose income is low enough that the children qualify for free or reduced priced lunches, a federal measure of poverty. The white students in Atlanta tend to go to schools with very low poverty rates. In New York City, Reardon finds the same pattern but not to the same extreme. Meanwhile, in Detroit, this pattern isn’t true at all. White and black students attend different schools, but the poverty levels are high in both white and black schools.
“Racial segregation appears to be harmful because it concentrates minority students in high-poverty schools, which are, on average, less effective than lower-poverty schools,” concluded the paper by academics, led by Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
The study examined scores from hundreds of millions of tests over the last decade by students in thousands of school districts. Researchers found a “very strong link” between racial school segregation and academic achievement gaps. Every school district with “even moderately high” segregation had a large achievement gap, they found.
Fifty years ago, communities across America began efforts to make school districts more racially integrated, believing it would ease racial disparities in students’ educational opportunities. But new evidence shows that while racial segregation within a district is a very strong predictor of achievement gaps, school poverty – not the racial composition of schools – accounts for this effect.
In other words, racial segregation remains a major source of educational inequality, but this is because racial segregation almost always concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, according to new research led by Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE).
“The only school districts in the U.S. where racial achievement gaps are even moderately small are those where there is little or no segregation. Every moderately or highly segregated district has large racial achievement gaps,” said Reardon, the Professor of Poverty and Inequality at Stanford GSE. “But it’s not the racial composition of the schools that matters. What matters is when black or Hispanic students are concentrated in high-poverty schools in a district.”
"Racial intolerance (and outright racism) seems on the rise, and white-black income and wealth disparities remain very large and have not narrowed in decades. So there is little reason to expect much decline in racial segregation in the near future, particularly given the lack of policy interest in addressing it. Economic segregation likewise shows no sign of declining. So I am currently pessimistic, given today’s political and economic winds, but am more hopeful about the long arc of the future, which I think will ultimately bend toward equality and fairness." Sean Reardon
Stanford’s Reardon points out that one reason that the racial and ethnic gaps in Berkeley are so high is that white students on average are doing exceptionally well, not that black and Latino students are doing exceptionally poorly, at least compared to their peers in other school districts.
In that sense, Berkeley is not that dissimilar to other communities which are also home to world-class universities, like Palo Alto, Chapel Hill and Evanston, IL, where achievement gaps are also very large.
“Some of it is that white families in those places tend to have higher incomes and education levels than black and Hispanic families, who have fewer socioeconomic resources to use to provide educational opportunities for their children such as high-quality preschool,” Reardon said.
The 2019 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings were unveiled today and CEPA faculty and alumni* scored high marks on the list. Of the 200 education scholars ranked, 12 CEPA faculty and alumni made the list: