Segregation and peers’ characteristics in the 2010–2011 kindergarten class: 60 years after Brown v. Board

Closing achievement gaps—disparities in academic achievement between minority and white students, and between low-income and higher-income students—has long been an unrealized goal of U.S. education policy. It has now been 60 years since the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. We experienced two decades of school desegregation, coupled with a “war on poverty,” that substantially narrowed race-based gaps during the 1970s and 1980s. However, subsequent shifts in policies that led to increased segregation and inequality have resulted in ballooning income-based gaps and a virtual halt to progress on closing race-based gaps.

With income inequality at record levels Mishel et al. 2012, the interactions between poverty and race remain strong and troubling and continue to impede educational progress for many students. One result of such interactions is ongoing segregation—at both the neighborhood and school levels. Yet most education “reforms” focus on a narrow set of policy fixes that minimize the roles of poverty and of race and overlook the impact of segregation. As scholars document the connections between neighborhood- and school-level segregation, it is important that we better understand how both affect schools and students in order to more productively guide both future research and policymaking.

This paper uses data from a recent representative cohort of U.S. students entering kindergarten—the National Center for Education Statistics’ Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-11 ECLS-K:2011—to begin to do that. We first describe how segregated schools are by both race and income, by comparing the racial and socioeconomic status SES composition of those kindergarten classes with what they would look like if they represented the characteristics of the U.S. student body overall. We then explore the differences in students’ other characteristics based on the racial makeup of their own classes. Finally, we analyze how their academic performance changes over that first year as measured by their place on the score distribution in math, reading, and approaches to learning at entry in the fall and again in the spring by level of segregation in the school.

The findings, though just descriptive, are often surprising and raise both serious concerns and many new questions:

  • The vast majority of white students, even poor ones, are in classrooms with other students who are not poor. In contrast, most students of color, both black and Hispanic, go to school with many other students who are living in poverty.
  • While the family characteristics of white children vary relatively little depending on the type of classroom they are in unless that classroom is very heavily minority, family characteristics of black and Hispanic children vary substantially from heavily white to heavily minority schools.
  • Academic performance varies greatly, depending on the school’s level of segregation across all races of students; the more heavily minority the school, the less prepared students are on average in the fall, and the smaller their relative gains by spring.
  • Finally, the data appear to support more sophisticated analyses’ suggestions that income segregation underlies many apparent negative consequences of racial segregation.

The bottom line is that, while race is not the real “culprit” in education, racial status is so strongly determinative of a minority child’s peers’ other characteristics—especially parental and family background—that integrating schools appears key to improving odds of children’s success and increase equality among groups.

Source: Economic Policy Institute

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