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Yes, America stalled on school integration. It also stalled on economic integration.

Aug 6, 2015

Last weekend, This American Life ran a powerful, heart-wrenching story of how segregation continues to haunt the American education system. If you haven't yet heard it, you should definitely make some time to listen. TAL billed it as the first of two stories they have on the topic. So, while I was sitting around waiting for the second part to come out, I decided to dive a little deeper into some of the research behind last week's story. 

First, TAL's story on segregation was based on years' worth of reporting by Nikole Hannah-Jones, most of which appeared in ProPublica. Here's the story that inspired the TAL piece. And here is Hannah-Jones' investigation Segregation Now, which tells the story of how racial segregation crept back into the education system in the years after Brown v. Board of Education. Helpfully, ProPublica also published source notes for the investigation, which is where I found a number of the studies mentioned below. 

One study, by University of California-Berkely professor Rucker Johnson, looked at long-term outcomes for the children who were bused into integrated schools starting in the 1960s. Johnson found that integration helped black students have better grades, go to better colleges, get better jobs and have better health outcomes as adults. It did this largely because it helped black students get into better schools, with better teachers and more resources. And, importantly, Johnson finds that this change didn't hurt white students: 

The results demonstrate that racial convergence in school quality and educational attainment following court-ordered school desegregation played a significant role in accounting for the reduction in the black-white adult health gap. While no single explanation likely accounts for this rapid convergence, this work shows that school desegregation was a primary contributor, explaining a sizable share of the narrowing of the racial education, and economic and health status gaps among the cohorts examined. Small, statistically insignificant results across each of these adult outcomes for whites suggest that benefits for minority children do not come at the expense of white students.

Despite these benefits, the integration of America's schools peaked in the late 1980s. Nikole Hannah-Jones notes on This American Life that this is also the exact time when progress on the racial achievement gap between students stalled. 

But it's not at all clear that one event caused the other. In the source notes for Segregation Now, there's one report that takes this question up directly. The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped, published by the Educational Testing Service, is basically a point-by-point analysis of how the test-score gap between white and black students started closing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and then just stopped:

During this period, the gap narrowed in family resources, such as parental income, education, and occupation. While research provided no solid findings beyond those, some additional factors appear to be important. There may have been some gap closing as a benefit of desegregation, but it would take some strong assumptions to reach this conclusion. There may have been some benefits from decreases in class size during this period, but we do not have separate trends by race. While there is some evidence to support these factors, it is largely suggestive, not conclusive.

And here we arrive at something of a paradox. Because, while the research clearly shows that integration had positive benefits for students (especially black students), the reverse has not been proven. The re-segregation of America's schools cannot, on its own, explain why test score gaps persist between white and black students. 

One way to try to sort this out is to think about economic segregation in schools rather than just racial segregation. My colleague Sarah Alvarez took this up in a story for State of Opportunity a couple years ago, when she quoted Stanford professor Sean Reardon:

"Over the last 40 or so years, the black-white achievement gap and the Hispanic-white achievement gap have narrowed a lot," Reardon said. "On the other hand, the gap between high and low income students has increased quite dramatically." Reardon said that particular gap has grown about 40% since the 1980s. 

To be clear, that narrowing of the racial achievement gap over 40 years all happened before the 1990s. To understand what happened next, it helps to think more about economics. Because, when the laws allowed students to be segregated by race, even middle- and high-income black families would send their kids to the same schools as the poor black families. But today, higher-income black families have more of a choice in where to send their kids. And if you have the means to get your kid out of a low-performing school, most parents will try to do that – regardless of their racial background. 

And so when the legal tide started to turn against forced racial integration, economics may have taken over. Now, it wasn't all black kids stuck in the same under-resourced schools. It was just the poor black kids whose parents couldn't afford to move, or to drive them to a school one town over. 

At about the same time integration programs in this country were being dismantled, economic changes were happening as well. Median black family income peaked in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center, and the wealth gap between the average white family and the average black family in America was wider in 2011 than in was in 1984. 

So, while there's a strong case for why integrated schools are good for kids, economics matter too.