School Segregation Redux
Desegregation orders being
by E. Wayne Ross
Z magazine, March 2003
While public schools were continuously
desegregated from the 1950s to the 1980s, the past 12 years has
seen a rapid retreat from these efforts as federal courts terminated
major and successful desegregation orders. In the 1990s, U.S.
Supreme Court rulings in cases such as Board of Education of Oklahoma
City v. Dowell and Freeman v. Pitts made it easier for school
districts to be declared "unified" or desegregated.
In the last 7 years, in the wake of these decisions, nearly 50
districts across the country have had their court-ordered desegregation
A study released by the Harvard Civil
Rights Project in January illustrates how federal court rulings
have contributed to the resegregation of public schools across
the nation. "A Multiracial Society with Segregated Schools:
Are We Losing the Dream?" examines research on the impact
of desegregation and describes patterns of racial enrollment and
segregation in U.S. public schools at the national, regional,
state, and district levels based on the latest data from the U.S.
Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics
(the report is available at www. civilrightsproject. havard. edu).
Common myths about school desegregation-such
as it was a good idea that didn't work, that it increased "white
flight," or didn't solve education educational problems-are
not supported by the enormous amount of research on the effects
of desegregation. The report's authors-Erica Frankenberg, Chungmei
Lee, and Gary Orfield-summarize the research on desegregation
into three general findings:
* Segregated schools have much higher
concentrations of poverty and other problems and much lower average
test scores, levels of teacher qualifications, and advanced courses.
With few exceptions, separate schools are still unequal schools.
Ending desegregation tends to produce a rapid increase of such
schools within a district and more qualified teachers tend to
leave these segregated schools.
* In systems with desegregation plans,
particularly those areas with substantial white enrollment, minority
students tend to transfer to better schools and learn more, though
a racial "achievement" gap remains. Going to desegregated
schools improves students' chances for a desegregated future life,
for going to and succeeding in college, and living and working
in interracial settings.
* When teachers create positive academic
interactions in racially diverse schools, the benefits of desegregated
schools increase substantially.
In addition, the author's point to more
recent research that shows educational and civic benefits of desegregation
for all racial groups. For example, in Louisville-Jefferson County,
Kentucky-the largest urban area in what the report claims is the
nation's most integrated state-both black and white students report
very positive results on a range of questions on educational and
social outcomes. Ninety-three of white juniors and ninety-five
percent of black African Americans said they are comfortable working
with students of other races on group projects. Even higher percentages
of white and black students said they were comfortable in classes
learning about each others' cultures.
Despite the educational and social successes
of desegregation, federal court rulings combined with the failure
of the federal government to fund desegregation assistance programs
for over two decades have created conditions for, indeed encouraged,
the resegregation of public schools.
The Civil Rights Project report highlights
the rapid racial transformation of U.S. schools. Since 1968, black
student enrollment has increased nearly 30 percent and Latino
student enrollment is up 283 percent. In contrast, public school
enrollment of whites is down 17 percent. In every region of the
country the school population has become less white and schools
in the South and West have the highest concentrations of black
and Latino students (and these regions are approaching student
populations where whites are in the minority). There are now six
states where white students are a minority of the enrolled school
population: California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico,
and Texas. Schools in the Northeast and Midwest still have large
The Harvard study reports that, on average,
white, black, and Latino students all attend schools in which
the majority of the student body is composed of students of their
own race. Whites are now the most segregated group in public schools-attending
schools that on average are 80 percent white. In contrast, the
average Asian student attends the most integrated schools (although
Asian students still attend schools that are on average 22 percent
Asian). Native American students attend schools, on average, in
which half the student body is white and slightly less than one-third
of students are Native American. Native American students have
the lowest exposure to black students among all racial groups.
White students are attending majority
white schools at time when minority students make up nearly one-half
of the public school enrollment. During the 1990s, the proportion
of black students in majority white schools decreased by 13 percent-a
level lower than any year since 1968.
There are only two states that have not
shown an increase in black segregation in recent years and these
states-Michigan and New Jersey-are highly segregated and showed
virtually no change. States with large increases in segregation
(such as Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina) are home to school
districts that had long-running desegregation orders terminated
in the 1990s.
Over the past two decades in Kentucky,
there has been nearly a 10 percent decrease in the percentage
of white students in schools attended by blacks. Despite this
decrease in integration, the Harvard report notes Kentucky has
had the highest level of black-white exposure in schools since
1980. This is largely the result of consolidation of city and
county school systems in metro Louisville, which remain under
a desegregation plan.
The Harvard study also identifies the
importance of the relationship between racial segregation and
poverty. High poverty schools have been shown to increase educational
inequality for students because of a lack of resources and qualified
teachers as well as low parental involvement and high teacher
turnover rates. (There are nearly 200,000 noncertified teachers
now, mostly in schools serving poor, minority, and immigrant children.)
Almost half of the students in schools attended by the average
black or Latino student are poor or very poor, while less than
20 percent of students in schools attended by the average white
student is classified as poor. A substantial number of public
schools that are virtually all non-white, what the study's authors
label "apartheid" schools, have emerged in recent years.
These schools educate a quarter of the students in the Midwest
and Northeast and are often schools plagued by substantial poverty,
social, and health problems.
Teaching For Whites Only?
In addition to the racial segregation
of students, there is a serious race gap between teachers (86
percent of whom are white) and the nearly 50 percent of students
who are minorities.
Courts are largely responsible for the
resegregation of students, but state and federal legislation has
become a serious barrier to increasing diversity of the teachers
in public schools, compounding the deleterious effects of resegregated
schools. This legislation, in particular the No Child Left Behind
Act, relies on standardized tests to improve education and teacher
There is overwhelming evidence that standardized
tests are primarily measures of race and class, rather than educational
achievement of public school students. These findings are consistent
with what we know about college-admissions and teacher licensure
tests, which contribute to educational inequality by denying education,
scholarships, and access to the teaching profession to minority
students, thereby sustaining the race gap between teachers and
students in schools.
ACT college admissions test scores, for
example, are directly related to family income (the richer the
students' parents are, the higher the average scores across income
groups) and race (whites outscore all groups when factors such
as course work, grades, and family income are equal). The ACT
also does a poor job of predicting the college performance of
minority students-explaining only 7 percent of the difference
in first-semester college grades of black students. Despite its
inaccuracies and biases, ACT scores are often used to determine
entrance into colleges and for allocation of scholarships. The
SAT, which is a direct descendent of the racist anti-immigrant
Army Mental Tests of the 1920s, is also plagued by biases that
are effective in eliminating promising low-income and minority
students from college classrooms.
ACT or SAT test scores above a specified
level are required for admission to most teacher education programs.
As a result of biases in both these tests large numbers of potential
minority teachers are being excluded from opportunities to become
classroom teachers. A detailed study of the impact of standardized
tests on the teacher candidate pool in Florida indicated that
test score requirements eliminated 80 percent of black and 61
percent of Latino applicants to teacher education programs, but
only 37 percent of whites.
There is also a long history of cultural
bias on teacher licensure tests, which are typically taken upon
exit from teacher education programs. A recent National Research
Council report on teacher tests concludes that raising cut-off
scores on these tests will reduce racial diversity in the teaching
profession without improving quality. The differences in average
scores among racial/ethnic groups on teacher licensure tests are
similar to the differences found among these groups on college
admission tests, showing substantial disparities between the passing
rates of white and minority test takers.
Most importantly, the NRC found that these
tests do not predict who will become effective teachers. The NRC
concluded that by their design and as currently used tests like
the PRAXIS-the most widely-used teacher licensure test-fall short
in their use as accountability tools, as levers for improving
teacher preparation, and encourage erroneous conclusions about
the quality of teacher preparation. Still, over 40 states rely
on standardized tests for teacher licensure.
Efforts to improve learning and teacher
quality rest on a misguided use of standardized tests. Rather
than improving learning or increasing teacher quality, the latest
research indicates that an emphasis on testing results actually
lowers student academic performance, increases dropout rates,
and serves as a barrier to diversifying the teaching profession
with improving teacher quality. A recent study by Arizona State
University researchers showed that in states that have adopted
high-stakes exams there has been a decline in student performance
on independent measures of achievement, such as the National Assessment
of Educational Progress (aka "The Nation's Report Card").
What is To Be Done?
As the authors of the Harvard study note,
segregation is a failed educational policy that produces deeply
unequal education and a polarized society. So too is test-driven
educational reform. Clearly the struggle for civil rights continues
and desegregated schools are an important achievement that must
be preserved, but school desegregation is not a panacea.
Frankenberg and her colleagues at the
Civil Rights Project offer a basic policy framework that they
say is needed to increase integration in U.S. public schools.
The framework includes principles such as: (1) explicit recognition
of integrated education as a basic education goal and judicial
recognition that integrated education is a compelling educational
interest in our society; (2) a resistance to terminating desegregation
plans; and (3) in cases where schools districts are forbidden
to continue its desegregation plan by a federal court, that consideration
should be given to efforts to keep diversity by social and economic
There is a mountain of evidence documenting
the deleterious effects of high-stakes tests on teaching, learning,
and society. Many of the backers of these tests are aware of the
problems and nonetheless remain committed to their use as a tool
to regulate knowledge in schools and universities; to sort students
by race and class; and limit access of minorities to the teaching
profession. Increasing numbers of students, parents, and educators
are pushing back against educational "reform" efforts
that divide students and teachers along racial, ethnic, and class
lines. The Rouge Forum (www.rougeforum.org), the Whole Schooling
Consortium (www.coe.wayne.Edu/CommunityBuilding/WSC.html), and
the Coalition for Commonsense in Education (www.free.freespeech.
org/ccse) are three examples of grassroots groups working for
more inclusive schools and classrooms; organizing across the barriers
of race, class, ability; and acknowledging that schools remain
a pivotal, if not the most important, battleground of political
and economic interests in the U. S. today.
E. Wayne Ross is a distinguished University
Scholar at the University of Louisville and co-editor of Workplace:
The Journal for Academic Labor and Cultural Logic.