Data Show Segregation by Income (Not Race) is What’s Getting Worse in Schools

The intersection of poverty and race is producing larger and more alarming achievement gaps

There’s a new narrative that U.S. schools are “resegregating” along racial lines. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights used the word “resegregation” on the headline of a recent press release and scheduled a briefing on the subject for May 20. And the word “resegregation” gets bandied about frequently at education conferences and in the press.

But academic researchers, speaking at a May conference for education journalists in Boston, said they don’t see evidence of a worsening racial separation across the country, as if whites and minorities who once learned in the same classrooms were now heading to different schoolhouses. What they do see is an increasing number of minority students in public schools, and an increasing number of schools that are dominated by minority students, but both trends are keeping pace with the increase in the minority population overall.

It’s the U.S. population that’s changing, not a redistribution of races in our schools, as the word resegregation implies. White students now make up less than half the public school population, and there are fewer of them to spread around.

It’s worth remembering that even at the peak of integration, in the late 1980s, schools were still quite segregated. White students tended to go to schools that were majority white, minorities to schools that were largely minority. For a school that was already, say, 70 percent minority, an influx of immigrants could easily tip the population into the 90 percent camp. This could happen without policy makers pulling the plug on integration, or families picking up and moving into separate, more racially homogenous school districts.

“We have segregation, and increases in concentrations of low-income minorities,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University. “But it doesn’t mean that school systems have begun to allocate students more unevenly.”

Yes, the percentage of minorities is rising at many schools. But to prove increased racial segregation, you would need to show that the number of minority students in many schools is increasing faster than the increase in the minority population. You can find examples of that in some regions and communities, but the data don’t show that for the nation as a whole. Similarly, you would need evidence of white students flocking away from minorities. Instead, the data show that the typical white student is going to school with more minorities. So-called “white” schools are becoming more integrated. Back in 1996, for example, the average white student attended a school that was 81 percent white. That figure is now below 75 percent, according to the most recent data.

From the perspective of an individual black or Hispanic student, who sees his or her school getting “browner,” it may feel like a distinction without a difference. It certainly feels segregated when there are many more schools today in which minority students number more than 90 percent of the student body.  Today, the typical minority student is less exposed to white students at school.

To be sure, certain school districts have “resegregated.” But desegregation court orders have expired in fewer than 500 districts. While that sounds like a large number, it’s small compared to the more than 12,000 school districts across the country. Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, explained that she hasn’t yet seen evidence that these instances of resegregation have been large enough to drive the numbers nationally.

What Reardon and Owens are finding is another kind of segregation in the schools — along income lines. Rich families are increasingly pulling away from poor ones, and sending their kids to different schools. At the same time, more families are living in poverty. According to a February 2016 paper published by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, income segregation between different school districts increased 15 percent between 1990 and 2010. Within large districts, the segregation of students who are eligible and ineligible for free lunch increased by about 30 percent during the same 20 years.

And here’s the rub: this increase in poverty is more pronounced in minority schools. That is, the poverty rate in predominantly minority schools is rising faster than the poverty rate in predominantly white schools, according to Reardon’s calculations.

This new income segregation is now exacerbating racial achievement gaps.

In an April 2016 analysis of test scores around the country, Reardon found that the largest achievement gaps are in places where there are large socio-economic differences between families of white and minority students. For every 10-percentage-point difference in the poverty rate of white and minority students’ schools, the achievement gap grows by roughly one-quarter of a grade level.

Are there any communities that have figured out how to narrow the achievement gap between whites and minorities?

“I wish the data would show us some success stories, but I’m afraid it doesn’t,” said Reardon.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.