Segregation Then & Now

In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education struck down state laws that required schools to be segregated by race, which then existed in 17 southern states. More than a half-century later, although schools can no longer exclude students on the basis of race, many of our public schools still do not reflect the diversity of our nation.

The composition of our school communities matter, not just for improving student outcomes, but for the stability and prosperity of our nation. 

Diverse school communities foster empathy and understanding across cultures and prepare students for life and work in a multi-ethnic nation. What’s more, research shows that integrated schools hold greater potential for helping students succeed academically than racially isolated schools, ultimately bolstering economic growth for society as a whole.

These are among the many aspects CPE delved into as part of our examination of school segregation. Our study shows that troubling realities exist. Among our key findings: 

  • Shifting demographics have changed how often students of different races are in the same schools. 
  • Despite progress, many of our students are still racially isolated. About 15 percent of black and Latino students attend schools that are less than one percent white. 
  • Low-income black and Latino students are far more likely to attend schools of concentrated poverty than poor white students. 
  • Because segregation occurs mainly between school districts instead of between campuses in the same district, integrating schools may be challenging in some areas.  However, school leaders can still achieve some successes in their efforts to diversify their schools.  

That last point, actually, is among the most important takeaways from our report. Yes, purposefully increasing school integration is controversial, limited by legal boundaries, and often difficult to achieve. But it is possible and beneficial to students. Our goal is to shine a light on the issue with the hope that readers will use this report as a starting point when planning how they can improve diversity in their local school, district, and community. 

Race, poverty, and student outcomes

The research base is overwhelmingly clear that poor students have better scholastic outcomes when they attend socioeconomically diverse schools. For example, low-income fourth-grade students who attended more affluent schools scored almost two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools on the 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in math. 

Separating the effects of poverty and race in school populations is extremely difficult, as most high-minority schools are also high-poverty. The confluence of race and poverty within several minority groups makes it doubly difficult to get a clear picture on how racially homogenous (or diverse) schools impact the performance of individual students. 


One thing we do know. The student composition of school populations can be related to systemic differences in school resources, which have also been found to contribute to achievement gaps. For example:

  • High-poverty, high-minority schools have twice as many teachers with less than one year of teaching experience and five times as many teachers who don’t meet state certification requirements than low-poverty, low-minority schools (GAO, 2016).
  • Low-income schools offer fewer high-level math and science courses, as well as fewer AP and gifted/talented education programs (GAO, 2016).
  • Funding is often lower, sometimes significantly so, for high-poverty and/or high-minority schools and districts (Mosenki, 2014; GAO, 2016).

Concentrated, purposeful efforts to break down the barriers of segregated schools have shown to have long-lasting positive effects. A multi-generational study out of Berkeley, for example, shows that the effect of higher school quality under desegregation led to better educated parents, which produced higher achievement in their children, and to their children in turn (Johnson, 2012). Finally, improved academic achievement may also be correlated with increased opportunities through post-secondary education and increased lifetime earnings (Hanushek, Ruhose, & Woessmann, 2016).

Measuring racial segregation

Recent reports have drawn attention to school segregation, often claiming that schools are becoming resegregated (see for example, Brown 2016; Smith 2016). This is not entirely true. Overall, student distribution within metropolitan areas has become more balanced in the last 10 years, which means that individual schools better reflect the overall make-up of the demographics of their cities and communities, though this varies by city (Stroub & Richards, 2013). 


White students are in classrooms with more students of other races than they used to be. However, black and Latino students are less likely to be in classrooms with white students than they were in the 1970s and 80s. How are both of these trends simultaneously possible? The demographic makeup of the school-age population has changed over the past 50 years, which has created natural shifts in how students are exposed to students of other races.


What can school districts do?

Even if school leaders want to integrate their schools, their policy levers are often limited to their own district boundaries due to demographic patterns and legal precedents. Nonetheless, the positive effects on individual students and society as a whole should not be overlooked, and so the effort is worth it. 

When considering strategies for integrating schools within a district, school leaders should keep in mind the following policy solutions and best practices:

  • Consider race and socioeconomic status in setting diversity goals, not just one or the other. While the two are correlated, they are not the same.  
  • Be prepared to articulate and document the educational benefits of adopting a student assignment plan that makes diversity a centerpiece.
  • Community input and buy-in are essential to the success of any large scale policy change, especially one that addresses students’ school assignments.
  • Families should have some level of choice in a new school assignment plan, but choice should also be limited to reduce the possibility of increasing segregation.
  • For districts that are somewhat homogenous in racial make-up, it may be necessary for district leaders to work with other districts in their metropolitan area in order to achieve diversity.

Chandi Wagner is a research analyst for the Center for Public Education. 

Published: January 2017
Copyright Center for Public Education 2017