Thursday, November 14, 2013

What Do We Know About School Segregation?

Several recent studies have been released questioning the extent of resegregation in US public schools.  A study published in the American Educational Research Journal this spring examined schools in metropolitan areas and found modest increases in integration over the last decade with increasing shares of segregation between non-white groups (as compared to segregation between whites and nonwhites).  More recently, Sean Reardon and Ann Owens argued that there has been little change in overall segregation, though variation exists between groups, regions, and other factors. Finally, in a new study out in American Sociological Review that has attracted popular attention, Jeremy Fiel argues that the declining percentage of White students and between-district segregation are causes of minority students’ lower exposure to White students.  Last year, researchers at the Civil Rights Project found increasing segregation and racial/poverty concentration for Black and Latino students and high isolation for Whites, although this too varied across contexts.

How to make sense of these different findings?  Fiel frames the argument as a tension between exposure and imbalance.  The calculation of racial exposure (as is the case with another measure, racial concentration) of one group to another is influenced by the percentage of each group in the overall enrollment, which is why it may be less preferred in examining trends over time.  Yet, despite the sensitivity to group changes, it provides important substantive information: it tells us about the experience of the “typical” student of a given racial group.  Measures of racial imbalance (also referred to as measures of evenness) are not as sensitive to these population changes, and one of the more popular measures of imbalance allows for calculations of multigroup segregation.  Yet, if all schools were balanced in a district that is 90% Black and Hispanic, we would calculate low segregation according to balance and miss the fact that the students in these schools have very low exposure to White and Asian students—which, using exposure or concentration, would look more segregated.

As our nation and particularly our public school enrollment gets more demographically complicated, the segregation measures used in many southern court desegregation cases, for example, are less likely to completely assess contexts that have three or more racial groups.  I have argued elsewhere that our conceptualizations of school racial context should be more dynamic as schools seem sensitive to relatively small percentages of Black and/or Hispanic students.  Schools that are diverse and stable are likely to be quite different from schools that are in the midst of racial transition in ways that affect the school environment.  Other research finds that the identity of the racial groups in multiracial settings also matters. In other words, there are many ways to measure segregation, and because of the various factors that impact segregation—district policy efforts, changing racial composition, residential segregation, and so on—using multiple measures can give us different ways of understanding this complex issue.  Further, these different dimensions of segregation may imply varied policy solutions.

What should we do about this? Given the considerable consensus of research finding that racially isolated minority schools tend to provide fewer educational opportunities for students and the short- and long-term benefits of diverse schools for students of all races, here are a few brief suggestions for policymakers and practitioners.

  • It is a multiracial world, and studies and discussions about segregation need to look at segregation between Whites and multiple non-White groups as well as segregation within non-Whites.  Likewise, using multiple measures will enhance understanding of the multi-dimensional nature of segregation, and increase the likelihood that policy solutions will best address a particular district or metropolitan area’s segregation patterns. For example, many of these studies and others find that there were different patterns of segregation in more diverse metropolitan areas.
  •  Segregation existing between districts is a serious issue. Much of these new studies and other research as well finds that, in particular, as suburbanization occurs, sorting is happening between suburban communities and districts by race and class, replicating segregation on a wider geographic scale. Thinking about districts and student assignment on a more regional basis can help to overcome these boundary-related segregation patterns. Research on interdistrict voluntary desegregation plans finds them to be successful for students’ outcomes and incredibly popular.
  •  Over the last two decades, school choice has rapidly increased, and some of these studies have noted the contribution of charter schools has become increasingly important. Further, Whites remain the most isolated racial group of students, and their lack of exposure to other groups may have important long-term implications for their post-high school integration experiences.  In particular, they may be more likely to use residential choice or school choice to attend homogeneous schools, so evaluating the effect of school choice polices should become an essential part of their continued development and implementation.
  • For more suggestions and/or discussion of these issues, the National Coalition for School Diversity has devised some recommendations for federal education policy, and Penn State will be holding a conference on Civil Rights & Education next summer.
by Erica Frankenberg

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