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America's Increasingly Segregated Schools

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 19, 2011 06:30 PM

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Dana Goldstein, an education journalist working at Columbia University, points out a striking fact: America's schools are more segregated today than they were in 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated:

Overall, a third of all black and Latino children sit every day in classrooms that are 90 to 100 percent black and Latino.

They aren't segregated by law, of course - although legislative decisions about school redistricting are, as a matter of course, a cause of racial uniformity in the classroom. The other big factor is where people live. Essentially, long-term housing trends are leading to more segregated schools, and will continue to do so unless active steps are taken to bus kids to schools outside their communities. Those steps are increasingly unpopular, both politically and judicially.

One program that seemed to be working was a magnet school system in Wake County, N.C. The program located magnet schools in poor neighborhoods; then, when a gifted kid from an affluent area switched from her local school to the magnet school, another gifted kid from a poor neighborhood could take her place. Often, rich and poor kids traded schools.
Similar programs in Milwaukee, Hartford, and Seattle have been very successful. The Wake County school board, however, recently abolished the program, arguing that residents must "say no to social engineers!"

A more integrated school system is something almost everyone wants to see - the debate about how to get there, however, rages on.

Update: Over at Marginal Revolution, a follow-up post on this same topic disputes the central statistical claim. The post is full of useful links, and Dan Hirschman, in a comment, cites a useful summary by a sociologist:

A quick search of some recent top Sociology journals produced a very informative article on trends in school segregation, 1970-2000, by Logan, Oakley and Stowell ("School Segregation in Metropolitan Regions, 1970–2000: The Impacts of Policy Choices on Public Education", AJS 2008.) The article examines both trends in primary school education, and the connection between desegregation policies and actual desegregation.

Here's the conclusion: "The gains [in integration] were concentrated in shifts within school districts, which is where enforcement actions have almost always been targeted. There was nearly a 40% fall in segregation at this level. But these gains were partly counterbalanced by increasing between‐district segregation that occurred especially between 1970 and 1990. This rise is surprising, because levels of residential segregation were falling moderately in many parts of the country at the same time (in our sample of metropolitan areas, the average was 79 in 1970, 68 in 1990, and 65 in 2000). The trends are consistent with the interpretation that in this era when black‐white separation in schools could no longer be taken for granted, white families with children were systematically selecting homes in school districts with smaller minority populations. We have not measured white flight directly, but we infer it from rising between‐district disparities. White flight was of sufficient magnitude to limit gains from desegregation but not to nullify them."

So things are better in 2000 than in 1970, but the 1990s saw a slight increase in segregation. Also, measured at the district, rather than the school, level, segregation has increased, in spite of residential segregation declining. So, your measures and units of analysis really do matter rather a lot.

The picture, in short, is rosier than Goldstein says it is.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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