Educational Inequality

egal segregation in American public schools was abolished by the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

The 1954 decision seemed to herald a significant change in society, one that would lead toward full racial integration of public life. Many believed African-American children would have access to better-funded institutions, facilities and teaching materials that their White peers already enjoyed. In turn, improved educational outcomes would lead to increased career opportunities for African-Americans, paving a path from poverty to the middle class.

That vision never materialized. Today, racial segregation remains firmly entrenched in our public schools, although the geography of segregation has largely shifted from the South to the Northeast and Midwest. Today, Black and Latino children are more likely to attend schools with mostly poor students in contrast to White and Asian kids.

Last September, the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, released a study, School Composition and the Black-White Achievement Gap, linking the Black-White achievement gap to racial segregation in the nation's public schools. The key finding showed White students, on average, attended schools with a 9 percent Black population, while Black students attended schools that were 48 percent Black. Schools with the highest densities of Black students (60-100 percent) were mostly in the South and Midwest, and in urban areas throughout the country. Low-density schools were mostly located in rural areas. 

Achievement levels for both Black and White students were lower in the schools with the highest densities of Black students, and the disparity in Black-White achievement levels was widest in highest density Black schools. Black male students had worse outcomes than Black female students in higher density Black schools as well. The study numbers came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress' 2011 mathematics assessment for eighth graders and the Common Core of Data for 2010-11.


"The Black-White achievement gap has often been studied, but its relationship to school composition has generally not been explored," read the study's executive summary. "The demographic makeup of public schools is of particular interest, given recent concerns about the growing re-segregation of schools."

A Detroit divide

The racial makeup of metro Detroit and Michigan make those concerns even more relevant to those concerned about local education. A 2014 UCLA study, Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future, named Michigan one of the most segregated states for Black students, with 50.4 percent of African-Americans attending schools with a minority population of 90-100 percent in 2011-12. Only New York (64.6 percent), Illinois (61.3 percent) and Maryland (53.1 percent) had higher levels.

School integration in Detroit, where African-Americans make up 82 percent of the population, is unlikely on a significant scale unless the area's racial demographics make a dramatic shift. Black students who attend school in the city and certain inner-ring suburbs typically attend majority Black schools reflective of the local population.

Such findings lead to more questions and discussion about implications for current and future educational policy and practice. Some advocacy groups that focus on educational achievement suggest that racial segregation alone isn't the cause for Black underachievement, but serves as a measurement for factors like poverty and lowered expectations from educators toward students of color. In other words, attributing a school's racial makeup to lower levels of achievement can lead to a more sinister narrative, one that pushes the idea that Black children need the presence of White students to perform well, and that the solution is to bring more White children into Black schools.

"I would never take away from integration as a goal, and the study itself is definitely capturing the fact that there is a re-segregation of our schools both racially and economically," says Sonja Santelises, vice president of K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust, a national nonprofit advocating high academic achievement, notably for students of color and low-income students. "The question we need to be asking is if we're doing all we can to ensure the students in these schools are receiving the education they deserve."

How did we get here?

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a unanimous 9-0 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. Brown overturned the court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that held that racial segregation of public places was not a violation of the Constitution, a ruling that had established the "separate but equal" doctrine as legally sound.

Brown is still considered one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in American history and a watershed moment that helped launch the national civil rights movement, but it didn't have the impact supporters might have hoped for in terms of changing the racial makeup of American schools. Although Brown made de jure segregation-enforced by law-illegal, de facto segregation continued. In the South, many White students began attending private schools, leaving the public schools to African-Americans. In other Southern areas where public schools did initially see greater degrees of racial integration, progress rolled back in the 21st century after local judges began halting desegregation orders that once facilitated integration.

In the North, White flight from the inner cities to city borders and finally, to suburbs, effectively nullified any lasting impact of Brown, as White children began attending all-White public schools that reflected their new neighborhood populations. In turn, many city schools saw their enrollment go from all White to racially mixed to all Black in less than a decade.

Metro Detroit proved a national test case when the Detroit Public Schools board passed a plan in 1970 to integrate the de facto segregated schools in the city by developing districting plans that would bus White students into schools with larger Black populations. Even then, the student body of DPS was already 65 percent Black.

The state vetoed the plan, and the NAACP and some Detroit parents filed a lawsuit in response. After a federal district court ruled for the plaintiffs and called for the development of a desegregation plan that included suburban districts, the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 5-4 decision in Milliken v. Bradley in 1974 quashed that plan, ruling that no evidence existed that suburban districts were drawing district boundaries on the basis of race to exclude Black children. Since no intent to legally segregate was taking place, those districts did not have to participate in a mandated desegregation effort.

While Milliken v. Bradley didn't gain the same level of publicity as Brown v. Board, legal scholars regard it as the case that put the brakes on school integration nationally by limiting desegregation to specific already-drawn boundaries, and perhaps indirectly encouraged future racial segregation as White suburban flight continued.

With the decline of busing, which had been promoted as a solution during the 1970s and '80s, and the end of local desegregation orders throughout the country, the fight for racial integration, at least in its current state, appears to be at a standstill.

Distance, not race

The changing population demographics of Detroit suggest, however, that the process of improving educational opportunities is much more complicated than racial integration.

Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition of educational, philanthropic, governmental and community leaders working to improve educational outcomes in the city, collected data that showed the largest factor affecting achievement in Detroit wasn't racial density or poverty levels but the average number of miles students traveled to school.

"Looking at the top schools in Detroit, nothing is a greater predictor of school performance than miles commuted," said Armen Hratchian, vice president for K-12 education for Excellent Schools Detroit. "It's not about poverty or race, per se, but average miles commuted is proxy for having a car, which is reflective of the amount of resources a family has to get their children to a good school."

He noted University Preparatory Science and Math High School, located near Detroit's riverfront, which had the highest average commute in the city at 9.35 miles. The school is part of the University Prep Schools charter system, which consists of two districts and seven campuses. The University Prep Schools website notes the system has fulfilled its stated promise to record a minimum 90 percent high school graduation rate and 90 percent college acceptance rate each year since graduating its first class in 2007.

According to Excellent Schools Detroit data, all of the schools in the University Prep system have Black enrollment rates exceeding 90 percent. Sixty percent of the high school students received free or reduced lunches, a measure typically used to determine socioeconomic status. That rate is lower than most schools in Detroit, but still high enough to indicate that poverty is an issue for many of its students.

Of the 31 elementary and middle schools Excellent Schools Detroit recommended in spring 2014 as quality options for local parents, only one has a student body that's less than 70 percent Black or Latino. Davison Elementary-Middle School, a Detroit public school located near the Davison-I-75 interchange, is 55.7 percent black and 43.4 percent Asian (mostly Bangladeshi and Arab students).

But there aren't many Davison-type schools in the city. Hratchian describes the landscape for Detroit students as "out of whack" in terms of supply and demand. The closure of neighborhood schools due to declining populations has left large areas without local options. Redford High's closing in Brightmoor is an example-while new charter schools open in the Midtown/Jefferson area where few children reside.

This situation isn't unique to Detroit. Hratchian notes that cities like Philadelphia and Oakland, California, have similar distance-related disparities.

Again, it's not the presence of large numbers of minority students that make a difference in achievement levels, data shows. Families and students will travel, if possible, for a quality education-even when they should be able to receive that in their own neighborhoods like students at Davison.

Where from here?

Santelises of The Education Trust knows from her experience in urban education in Baltimore, Boston and New York that students of color and low-income students can succeed in schools where they're the majority. TET compiles lists of outstanding schools that meet this goal, noting they're "organized in ways that teachers and community members make a palpable commitment to shift tactics to get success. They don't let themselves off the hook."

Poor and minority students often get the fewest resources and least-experienced teachers, she says. Teaching takes place in a "reductionist" way, in which students are given very basic, remedial-level materials after failing to meet certain standards, when more enriching, higher-level material would produce better results.

"We really need to confront what we tolerate in schools in cities like Detroit that we wouldn't tolerate in others. The narrative defaults back to the kids being 'broken' or coming from broken families. That's something we need to be called to task on.

"It's not that poverty isn't an issue or that integration shouldn't be a goal, but if we're waiting for Detroit schools to be integrated to expect results, we'll be waiting a long time. We need to be unequivocal in our expectation that all children should receive enriching, high-level instruction."

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