Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New Study Says School Segregation Stabilized Since 1990, But What Does That Mean?

Sean Reardon and Ann Owens have released 60 Years After Brown: Trends and Consequences of School Segregation, which is forthcoming in the Annual Review of Sociology.  The primary focus of the paper is whether segregation has increased since 1990.  Civil Rights Project reports and others have, of course, popularized the "resegregation" of public schools, finding a sharp upward trend over the last two decades.  Another smaller group of scholars (Vigdor and Glaeser) have claimed the opposite: that segregation is coming to an end.  Reardon and Owens attempt to mediate this disagreement, which they claim stems from different methodology between the two camps. Reardon and Owens  agree that minorities attend school with fewer whites today than they did 20 years ago.  In this respect, one could argue they are more segregated.  But Reardon and Owens stress that more minorities attend public school today than 20 years.  Thus, by necessity, they attend schools that are more populated by minorities than whites.  This change is not the equivalent of "resegregation."  To analyze resegregation, they say, one must factor in this growth in the percentage of minorities attending public schools.  Accounting for this growth, they find that segregation levels have remained relatively stable since the 1990s.  They point out, however, that this does not mean that schools are free of troubling trends.  For instance, there are still issues of socio-economic segregation and classroom segregation that have not been fully explored.

I would also emphasize a more important takeaway.  Our schools were never "integrated."  In the South, for instance, 4o percent of African Americans in the South attended integregated schools by the end of the 1980s, which was signficant progress, but far from full integration.  In the North, nowhere near as much progress was made.  Thus, to say they have not resegregated is not to say everything is fine or we can breath a sigh of relief.  Rather, it is to say that the work in progress from the 1980s remains unfinished.  Our only victory, if you want to call it that, is that we have not gone backward as far as we might have thought.

Reardon and Owens' abstract is as follows:

Since the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, researchers and policymakers have paid close attention to trends in school segregation. While Brown focused on black-white segregation, here we review the evidence regarding trends and consequences of both racial and economic school segregation. In general, the evidence regarding trends in racial segregation suggests that the most significant declines in black-white school segregation occurred at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. Although there is disagreement about the direction of more recent trends in racial segregation, this disagreement is largely driven by different definitions of segregation and different ways of measuring it. We conclude that the changes in segregation in the last few decades are not large, regardless of what measure is used, though there are important differences in the trends across regions, racial groups, and institutional levels. Limited evidence on school economic segregation makes documenting trends difficult, but in general, students are more segregated by income across schools and districts today than in 1990. We also discuss the role of desegregation litigation, demographic changes, and residential segregation in shaping trends in both racial and economic segregation.

One of the reasons that scholars, policymakers, and citizens are concerned with school segregation is that segregation is hypothesized to exacerbate racial or socioeconomic disparities in educational success. The mechanisms that would link segregation to disparate outcomes have not often been spelled out clearly or tested explicitly. We develop a general conceptual model of how and why school segregation might affect students and review the relatively thin body of empirical evidence that explicitly assesses the consequences of school segregation. This literature suggests that racial desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s was beneficial to blacks; evidence of the effects of segregation in more recent decades, however, is mixed or inconclusive. We conclude with discussion of aspects of school segregation on which further research is needed.



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