Orfield and co. on desegregation

July 25, 2007

One of the most disappointing things about the reaction to the Supreme Court decisions on race and pupil assignment have been the number of people who write things like “good schools are more important than integrated schools.” There are a number of problems with this formulation–among them the idea that we should have to choose between one of the two.

For one of the best statements of why integration still matters, and the ways in which it is currently threatened, check out the latest by Gary Orfield and his colleagues.

First, they lay out the research on racial isolation and academic achievement:

Although colleges and universities differ in their criteria and process for admissions, common elements to their admissions decisions for students include 1) whether a student has or will graduate from high school, 2) standardized test scores, and 3) number of advanced and Advanced Placement courses. Research consistently finds that minority students graduate at significantly lower rates in racially isolated minority schools; in fact, minority isolation is a significant predictor of low graduation rates, even when holding constant the effects of other school performance indicators. Academic achievement scores of students are also lower in segregated minority schools, and this effect can cumulate over time for students who spend multiple years attending segregated schools. Finally, many predominantly minority schools do not offer as extensive advanced curricular opportunities and levels of academic competition as do majority white or white and Asian schools.

To this, many will respond that we should make racially isolated schools better, and will point to examples of some KIPP schools and others where students of mostly one race do very well. I agree–if only out of necessity, we have no choice but to do everything in our power to make segregated schools better. But while we do that, let’s not forget that something is lost in the process:

In addition to offering different opportunities for academic preparation, research has also found that integrated schools offer minority students important connections to competitive higher education and information about these options. There are strong ties between successful high schools and selective colleges. Minority students who graduate from integrated schools are more likely to have access to the social and professional networks normally available to middle class white students. For example, a study of Latino students who excelled at elite higher educational institutions found that most students had attended desegregated schools — and gained academic confidence as well as critical knowledge about what they need to do to accomplish their aspirations (e.g., which courses to take from other, college-going students).

White students also lose if schools resegregate. Desegregation advocates assert that public school desegregation is powerful and essential because desegregated schools better prepare future citizens for a multiracial society. A critical component of this preparation is gaining the skills to work with people of diverse backgrounds. Segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods leave white as well and nonwhite students ill-prepared for what they will encounter in colleges and university classes or in their dorms.

Over 50 years ago, Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport suggested that one of the essential conditions to reducing prejudice was that people needed to be in contact with one another, particularly under appropriate conditions. Research in racially integrated schools confirms that, by allowing for students of different races and ethnicities to be in contact with one another, students can develop improved cross-racial understanding and experience a reduction of racial prejudice and bias. Importantly, research suggests that other interventions such as studying about other groups are not as effective or as long-lasting as actually being in contact with students of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.

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