Lost Learning, Forgotten Promises

A National Analysis of School Racial Segregation, Student Achievement, and “Controlled Choice” Plans

New report provides a national analysis of school racial segregation, student achievement, and “controlled choice” plans.

The struggle to desegregate America’s schools while ensuring equal educational opportunities for students of all races is one of the greatest social challenges the nation has faced over the last half century. While significant progress has been made since the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, thousands of schools around the country are still almost completely segregated. In the coming months, the Court will once again address the issue when it considers the constitutionality of “controlled choice” programs in Louisville and Seattle. These efforts, unlike the controversial busing of the 1960s and 1970s, are implemented without court intervention and allow parents a variety of school choices while still ensuring some degree of racial integration.

This report considers the educational consequences of the considerable racial segregation that remains in schools today and the potential of controlled choice to address them. It begins with an extensive review of research regarding the effects of school integration. Previous research provides relatively strong evidence that desegregation helps minority students reach higher academic achievement and better long-term outcomes such as college attendance and employment.

Previous studies on the subject, however, are either decades old or focus on relatively small groups of students. This report provides a new, exhaustive analysis of racial segregation across the country. Using test score information required by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the study analyzes the effects of segregation in more than 22,000 schools across the country that enroll more than 18 million students. Most previous studies on the subject have included no more than a few thousand students, making this study arguably the largest ever conducted on the effects of segregation.

The new information is used to address two basic questions: First, do minority students learn more in integrated schools? Second, would racial integration improve the equity of learning outcomes in general and in the Louisville and Seattle districts that are the subjects of the Court case? The answers to these questions appear to be “yes.” Specifically:

  • African Americans and Hispanics learn more in integrated schools. Minorities attending integrated schools also perform better in college attendance and employment.
  • Controlled choice and other forms of desegregation benefit minority students.
  • Racial integration is a rare case where an educational policy appears to improve educational equity at little financial cost.

These results have significant implications for the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision. In the original Brown decision, as well as a more recent case involving race and admissions to universities, a majority of the Court argued that considering race in school assignment constitutional partly because racial integration is an important part of the learning environment. By showing that less learning takes place in segregated schools, the results in this study support the contention that racial diversity is important to the learning environment in schools. If the goal is to improve achievement, then opposing controlled choice is counterproductive.

While the Court’s decision will have obvious implications for the future of desegregation programs, it may also complicate the implementation of NCLB. By evaluating schools based on test scores of racial subgroups, this federal accountability policy is, like controlled choice, explicitly race conscious. As a legal matter, the rejection of controlled choice by the Court could therefore put at risk the racial considerations in NCLB. Moreover, as a practical matter, if race is going to be a factor used to measure school success, then it stands to reason that schools should be able to consider race through such programs as controlled choice when addressing apparent school failures.

After a half-century of court cases and new policies, the nation still finds itself with highly segregated and inequitable schools. The main issue before the Supreme Court, and the nation’s citizens, is whether we will continue to accept these inequities or move forward in fulfilling the promise of Brown and the moral and educational imperatives of racial integration.

Read the full report:

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Douglas Harris

Affiliated Scholar