Racial isolation & student achievement – which is actually better?

In the United States, the history & struggle for racial integration of schools has largely been a social & political issue. Seldom has the question been raised, “In which setting do students actually do better?” Sarah Sparks at Education week reports on folks trying to answer this question, and draws the conclusion that “racial isolation” is worse for students of color. I don’t dispute the findings, or disagree with them. However, I wanted to present a bit of my own data analysis to present a slight twist on this perspective.

I’ve worked with youth in several, somewhat large, Southern school districts, and found an interesting trend: Black students in predominantly White schools actually tend to do worse. I’m basing this observation of relative performance on state and national tests, reported by state departments of education, available online. Where I’ve noticed this trend particularly is in schools with around 30-50% Black students, and in which those students come from highly impoverished areas in which school districts split up areas of concentrated poverty by sending students to different schools. This trend seems to be left over from a bygone area in which neighborhood schools were redistricted so that Black, poor residents from a single neighborhood didn’t all end up going to the same school.

Take this for what you will. I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be happening, but my main point of this blog post is not to advocate for racial isolation, segregation, etc., but to make the point that just because we value something doesn’t make it good. We may like the idea of Black & White students attending schools together, but does such racial integration actually lead to greater levels of academic achievement? Here’s an even more interesting question: For purposes of social justice & morality, would we be okay with racially integrated schools even if they did worse? In other words, would our priority for “doing the right thing” trump results? Still, put another way, could the means justify the end? These are questions I don’t have the answer to, but certainly like to think about.

So, while not the main point of this post, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least briefly bring in my thoughts on why racially integrated schools may not do as well. In short, my thoughts center around two hypotheses. First, greater academic heterogeneity may be impeding teacher effectiveness during whole group instruction. When teachers have students with a much wider range of skills in a classroom, it’s harder to design instruction which meets the needs of all students. In most of the schools I looked at, the Black students came from lower wealth backgrounds, and as a result often lower levels of incoming academic achievement. Higher diversity with SES lead to higher diversity with beginning academic achievement. By contrast, when students attend school with students of similar SES status, academic achievement may be more homogeneous, helping teachers plan effective whole group instruction that meets the needs of more students in the classroom.

Second, discipline: different groups of people tend to have different approaches to discipline, which means that when those kids get to school, teachers may experience different levels of success with certain disciplinary approaches with different types of students. Again going with the homogeneity argument, when you have students from similar demographic backgrounds, you’re more likely to be able to find a consistent classwide & schoolwide disciplinary approach that will work for more students. Contrast that with a school with a lot of different types of students with different disciplinary needs – an approach devised for 70% of the school may not work with the other 30%.

A lesser, though potentially valid, hypothesis is with teacher self-selection of location. In short, teachers tend to choose the schools they work in, and tend to choose those schools for particular reasons. Teachers who choose to work in schools with a population of 70% White students from wealthier backgrounds may not as likely gravitate toward Black students from lower wealth backgrounds. I realize this is grossly exaggerated, and in no way encompasses all teachers, but those of us who have worked in schools have most likely had conversations with fellow educators about preferences in terms of who we work with.

Again, the take home here isn’t any one particular conclusion, just that our values & common sense aren’t necessarily the best predictors or indicators of outcomes.

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Bobby Caples graduated from USF, and eventually went on to expand the concept of community-based behavior support in other settings, include the organization he founded called YouthBASE (Greenville, SC). The concept of YouthBASE was much like the concept of his thesis, only on a larger scale: Take ideas and strategies that had found success in other fields beyond after-school programs, and import them.