Is Desegregation Dead? Parsing the Relationship between Achievement and Demographics

By Eaton, Susan; Rivkin, Steven | Education Next, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Is Desegregation Dead? Parsing the Relationship between Achievement and Demographics


Eaton, Susan, Rivkin, Steven, Education Next


The Supreme Court declared in 1954 that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Into the 1970s, urban education reform focused predominantly on making sure that African American students had the opportunity to attend school with their white peers. Now, however, most reformers take as a given that the typical low-income minority student will attend a racially isolated school, and the focus, under the banner of "No Excuses," is to make high-poverty, high-minority schools effective. What role should racial desegregation play in 21st-century school improvement? In this Education Next forum, Susan Eaton, research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, makes the case for refocusing school reform on creating integrated schools. Steven Rivkin, professor of economics at Amherst College, questions whether desegregation efforts fulfilled their promise and points out complexities to the issue that researchers have barely begun to examine.

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EN: In which ways did the school desegregation movement succeed? Fail?

Susan Eaton: The school desegregation movement improved educational opportunities for students of color, particularly for black students in the South. It also created a generation of people for whom diversity was the norm.

The movement did not fail. Rather, government failed to actively support desegregation and, during the Nixon and two Bush administrations, actively worked against it. Not long after Brown, the courts began backing away from desegregation as a means toward equal educational opportunity. The rollback started with the Milliken v. Bradley decision in 1974, which prohibited the incorporation of suburbs into urban desegregation plans. This meant that in the North and Midwest especially, exclusive white suburbs were exempted from desegregation, even if their zoning and other housing policies had contributed to segregation in the region.

Desegregation's critics hold it to too high a standard, implying that unless desegregation solves all educational challenges, it is not worth the trouble. No policy could survive such a test. Desegregation was never meant to be a remedy for low test scores. Rather, it was and is one underlying condition with the potential to engender higher-quality schooling, improved race relations, and, in the long run, a more democratic, more equal society.

Diverse schools committed to equal opportunity hold vast, often untapped potential, but it is up to teachers, parents, administrators, and other sectors of society to harness it. When diverse schools institute rigid academic tracking that places students of color in low-level classes or employ harsh discipline policies that exclude students rather than providing support, they are not truly integrated. The success of today's diversity movement hinges on our ability to move diverse schools closer to true integration.

Increasing linguistic and cultural diversity enriches our society. A modern integration movement must incorporate immigrant students and English language learners. The sharp segregation of these groups from mainstream opportunity limits their chances for social mobility and encourages prejudice against them.

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Steven Rivkin: Desegregation efforts did improve the racial balance of public schools. Although demographic changes tempered the effects somewhat, school enrollment data show substantial changes in the racial makeup of schools after 1968. The South experienced the largest increase in school integration and the Northeast the smallest. Nationally, the share of African American students' schoolmates who were white rose from 22 to 36 percent between 1968 and 1980 before falling to roughly 30 percent in 2000. The decline in this measure during the 1990s resulted from the continued decline in the white enrollment share. …

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