Racially integrated high schools often conceal segregated classes, new study shows

Originally published March, 2020. Feature Image: Student walks down a hallway at Crispus Attucks High School. (Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat)

Matt Barnum, Chalkbeat

Racially integrated high schools often conceal segregated classes, new study shows was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: ckbe.at/newsletters.

A truly integrated high school is hard to find.

That’s the conclusion of a new North Carolina study that takes a look at two kinds of integration: whether students of different races and ethnicities attend the same schools, and whether those students actually sit in the same classrooms.

What it finds is troubling, if not surprising. Across the state, even when high schools appear racially integrated, their classrooms are often racially segregated.

This classroom-level division “can be substantial,” wrote the three Duke University researchers who conducted the study. “To ignore this aspect of segregation … can lead to a seriously incomplete picture.”

Black Lives Matter Files: Revisiting StoryBoard and partner archives to understand the roots of unrest. “… a riot is the language of the unheard,” said Dr. King in 1967. More importantly, “what is it that America has failed to hear?” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967*

The research is notable in its scope, and appears to validate longstanding concerns about academic tracking in high schools. Nationwide, black and Hispanic students are less likely to be enrolled in advanced courses — one key reason for the racial divides between classrooms.

The new North Carolina paper measures segregation on a scale of 0 to 1, with 0 meaning every school reflects the county’s racial demographics and 1 meaning each school is entirely segregated. The study was released by CALDER, a foundation-funded research group.

Looking just at the racial makeup of entire schools, the state’s public elementary schools were significantly segregated by race in 2013, while its high schools were somewhat more integrated. Once the researchers consider segregation at the classroom level, though, high school segregation jumps substantially.

Some places where schools appeared quite integrated on the surface, like Raleigh’s Wake County, actually maintain high levels of classroom-based segregation. And overall, counties that had less school segregation actually tended to have more classroom-level segregation.

The researchers can’t show why this is the case. One hypothesis: “White parents, seeking to have their children assigned to predominantly white classrooms, [may] make a stronger push for those children to be included in separate classrooms in racially diverse schools,” they write.

The study is only based on one state, but a separate 2013 paper looking at three unnamed districts found something similar. Two of the three districts had striking degrees of classroom segregation in their high schools.

These findings don’t surprise Kayla Patrick, an analyst with The Education Trust, an education-focused civil rights group. She recently co-authored a report that found large gaps in black and Latino students’ access to advanced courses nationally. For instance, black students made up 15% of high school enrollment, but only 9% of those in Advanced Placement courses.

Consistent with the North Carolina study, these disparities were largest in racially integrated schools.

“If you walk into your average high school, you might see diverse hallways but not diverse classrooms,” said Patrick.

Academic tracking — sorting students into classes based on their academic skills — likely explains some of the EdTrust and North Carolina findings. Critics of the practice have long warned that it leads to racial isolation within schools.

But it’s not clear tracking explains all of this. Using data from one unnamed school district, EdTrust found that black and Hispanic students were less likely to be in advanced courses than white students with similar test scores. A recent study on access to gifted and talented programs found something similar.

Patrick recommends ensuring that counselors don’t serve as gatekeepers to advanced coursework. Instead, students should be automatically enrolled in the most rigorous courses they’re ready for.

number of studies show that students of color from low-income families tend to do better in more integrated schools. There is less research on how classroom-level segregation affects students’ outcomes, but what exists raises concerns. The 2013 study of three districts, for instance, found that classroom-level segregation meant that black and Hispanic students were slightly more likely than white students in the same school to have an inexperienced teacher.

More broadly, Patrick argues that this sort of segregation can propagate harmful stereotypes.

“Beyond missing out on critical opportunities, Black and Latino students also are being sent a harmful message that advanced courses are not for them, or worse, that they are not smart enough to participate,” she and colleagues wrote in their report. “It’s a dangerous perception that fuels the persistent gaps in opportunities that exist in schools across the country.”

*During his 1967 speech “The Other America,” Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” In 2020, in direct contrast to those summers generations ago, evidence suggests that much of the unrest we are seeing today is not being caused by peaceful, nonviolent protesters, but by factions of groups exploiting the moment.

However, what Dr. King said in 1967 remains true today. It begs the question: Have we made any progress whatsoever?

I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. . . . I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. . . . But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From his 1967 speech “The Other America”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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