Fifty Years after Brown: New Evidence of the Impact of School Racial Composition on Student Outcomes

Article excerpt

Findings from educational research can have a major influence on public opinion and even on the outcomes of historic legal decisions. This fact was recently demonstrated by the Supreme Court's decision upholding affirmative action in law school admissions at the University of Michigan. The Court's opinion extensively cited a number of research studies to support their finding that diversity constituted a "compelling interest" for the university law school to use a consideration of race in their admissions policies. (1) Another arena in which social science research can have a significant influence in the public and judicial sphere is in K-12 schooling. Currently, school district leaders, policymakers and the public are still debating whether and in what circumstances race can be used in desegregating or creating racially and ethnically diverse schools. Research on the benefits of racially and ethnically diverse schools could help shape the direction and eventual outcome of that debate. Already in Federal Court cases in Seattle, Washington, and Lynn, Massachusetts, (2) judges have emphasized the importance of obtaining local data to support claims for the benefits that racial/ethnic diversity bring to educational settings. These claims are important because they could preserve the ability of school districts to maintain voluntary school desegregation plans, or to consider race in new student assignment plans.

Over the last half-century, many researchers have studied and written about school desegregation and race in American schools. Most studies on the benefits and costs to school desegregation are primarily from the 1960s and 1970s in response to the changes brought about from Brown, (3) the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the Green (4) case in 1968--a decision that led to increased enforcement of Brown and authorized busing (Clotfelter, 2004, Hallinan, 1998; Orfield and Eaton, 1996). Moreover, the Swann decision in 1971 particularly influenced the desegregation of school districts in the South because the court ruled that previously segregated districts needed to balance their schools racially, even if that required cross-town busing to do so. (5) The early studies of desegregation concentrated largely on the impact of desegregated schooling on the experiences of African American students and focused on school systems that had been intentionally segregated. However, in the last twenty years there has been a resurgence of scholarly work on the subject, including several important reviews of the literature (e.g., Hallinan, 1998; Schofield, 1995; 2001; Wells & Crain, 1994; Dawkins & Braddock, 1994; Crain & Mahard, 1983) and a newer set of studies by several economists (e.g., Rumberger & Palardy, 2003; Hanushek et al., 2002; Rivkin, 2000; Boozer et al., 1992).

These studies, while much more recent, follow a traditional strand of desegregation research focusing on the impact of desegregated schooling environments on the academic progress of African American students, as measured by standardized test scores. Given the broad mission of public schools and the increasing diversity of today's school age population, it is critical to branch out from the traditional achievement view of benefits to diversity, and incorporate different and equally important outcomes to schooling into the literature. Such outcomes include the impact of diverse schooling environments on civic and democratic engagement, the ability or desire to live and work in diverse settings, and the degree to which schools equally support the academic progress of all students, regardless of race.

In addition, the changing demographics of the country (Reardon & Yun, 2001; Clotfelter, 1999) have led to an increase in the number of Hispanic K-12 students at the same time that Hispanic segregation continues to intensify in certain geographic areas (Frankenberg & Lee, 2003; Laosa, 2001; Valencia, 1991). Although schooling for Hispanic students is becoming more segregated, much of the desegregation literature does not speak to the unique circumstances of Hispanic students in segregated schools, many times not including them in the discussion of important schooling outcomes. …


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