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News from EPI Sixty Years after Brown v. Board, Segregation Ensures That Schools Are not only Separate, but Sharply Unequal

Minority students are more likely both to be in heavily minority schools at kindergarten entry and to have peers from low-income families, a new Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) report finds. Further, the more heavily minority the school makeup, the less prepared for school students are on average in the fall, and the smaller their relative gains by spring. In Segregation and Peers’ Characteristics in the 2010-2011 Kindergarten Class: 60 Years After Brown Versus Board, Emma García, EPI economist, and Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, examine how segregated schools are by both race and income. They contrast the racial and socioeconomic status (SES) composition of our nation’s kindergarten classes with what they would look like if they represented the characteristics of the U.S. student body overall, explore differences in students’ other characteristics based on the racial makeup of their own classes, and analyze how their relative academic performance changes over that first year (as measured by their place on the 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.

“Though we made significant progress closing race-based gaps during the 1970s and 1980s, we have since reversed those gains, and students are segregated by both race and income as early as kindergarten,” said Garcia. “The segregation that so many of our children experience at school entry and, assuming it continues similarly, throughout their education, impedes their odds of success, and appears to pose particular disadvantages for black and Hispanic children.”

Minority students are not only much more likely than their white counterparts to be in heavily minority schools, but also to be surrounded by peers from low-income families. Three-fifths (60.5 percent) of white kindergartners are in classrooms in which only about 12 percent of their classmates are poor. Among black and Hispanic students, nearly as great a share (56.5 percent and 55.2 percent, respectively) are in classrooms in which nearly half of their peers are poor, while less than 5 percent of white children are in such heavily poor classrooms.

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 by their type of school. In extremely heavily minority schools, mothers of all racial groups are less educated than their average counterparts. Hispanic mothers are only half as likely to have at least a bachelor’s degree than the average Hispanic mother (2.5 percent versus 5.6 percent). Even in these schools, mothers of white children are no less likely to have bachelor’s degree, although these white moms are slightly more likely than average white moms to have no more than a high school diploma. These numbers reflect added disadvantage for minority students in two respects. First, the large proportion who attend heavily minority schools are disproportionately poor and their moms less educated. Second, the very few minority children in heavily white schools have a constellation of socioeconomic advantages that are extremely rare among their families.

Academic performance varies greatly, depending on the school’s level of segregation; the more heavily minority the school makeup, the less prepared students are on average in the fall, and the smaller their relative gains by spring. White, black, and Asian kindergarten students with better-than-average performance in the fall assessment are all clustered in schools with proportions of minority students between 10 and 50 percent. In contrast, the white students with the weakest school readiness skills attend the most heavily minority schools. Among Hispanic kindergartners, too, the highest-performing are in schools with a very low proportion of minority students, while Hispanic students in schools with 50 percent minority students or more start off less prepared than the average Hispanic student.

Finally, the authors’ findings appear to support more sophisticated analyses’ suggestions that income segregation underlies many apparent negative consequences of racial segregation. They recommend further research to determine whether this segregation persists through children’s later years and, more critical, the degree to which the patterns they find regarding the interactions among race, social class, and peer and school characteristics have independent impacts on children’s development.

“Instead of addressing ongoing school segregation, current policies not only dismiss segregation’s impacts but in some cases perpetuate and compound them,” said Weiss. “Factors such as families’ backgrounds and resources, peer effects, and school resources must all be considered when ensuring that future education policies are better aligned and more comprehensive.”