Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Surprising New Findings on the Academic Outcomes of Racial Segregation

A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education reached some new conclusions regarding the achievement gap between black and white students.  First, it found that African-American students performed lower in predominantly African-American schools than in other schools.  Most prior research attributes this lower performance to the concentration of poverty in those schools.  The current study, however, found lower African American achievement even after controlling for poverty and other variables.  Second, white students, in contrast, did not score lower in predominantly African American schools than in other schools.  Third, because African American students' achievement was lower in predominantly African American schools and whites achievement remained steady there, the black-white achievement gap was larger in predominantly black schools and smaller in predominantly white schools.

Putting these finding together produces a pretty remarkable principle: attending predominantly African American schools hurt African Americans' achievement, but not Whites'.  That is a remarkable conclusion, which will surely be subject to debate, critique, and further analysis.  But if it is correct, it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of many white families.  The study's findings would suggest that white flight from integrated or predominantly minority schools is not about achieving better academic outcomes for white students, but about racial fears.  By the same token, in gentrifying neighbors, white integration into predominantly African American schools is not the risky proposition many families might believe it to be.  

It, however, remains to be seen exactly why these trends hold true.  It is possible that unflattering explanations might arise.  Maybe whites who stay in predominantly minority schools use white-exodus as threat to school officials, whereby they secure special advantages for themselves.  Maybe these schools have rigid ability grouping that, in effect, privileges and segregates whites into schools within schools.  My experience in litigating desegregation cases in Georgia showed this to be the case.  On the other hand, less disconcerting explanations are plausible.  For instance, white students' achievement may be more closely related to personal demographics because they do not suffer as harshly from stereotypes and other biases.  This, of course, would remain troublesome for African-Americans, but would not suggest active manipulation by white parents.


Racial Integration and Diversity | Permalink


Derek, thanks for another thoughtful piece. Let me ask, though, if you would do away with ability grouping? We had it in our public schools, and it helped my children stay engaged and challenged. I agree that we need to be fair, but regardless of why some kids are able to do better, don't we hurt them and our entire society by not offering the most challenging work they can do? How do you deal with this issue in a way that is fair to all and promotes the public welfare? You are the most thoughtful commentator on issues of equal educational opportunity that I know. I'd appreciate your guidance here.

Posted by: Bill Garfinkel | Oct 20, 2015 12:10:23 PM

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