Absolute Versus Relative School Segregation

“Everyone knows” school segregation is getting worse, right? Well, no. That narrative has been fueled by a partial misread of the data.

It is true that absolute measures of school segregation are getting worse, but that’s mainly due to our diversifying country. In relative terms–how racially isolated are our schools compared to the underlying student population–segregation has not been nearly as dramatic. Here’s Brian Kisida and Olivia Piontek in a new piece over at Education Next:

In contrast, relative measures of segregation take into account the underlying composition of students, making them more comparable across locations and over time. They are also conceptually different in that they measure how evenly a given population of students is distributed across an entire school system. This makes intuitive sense, as segregation implies that some students are segregated from other students—relative to some underlying pool of students a school could enroll.

This issue with measuring segregation is well-known in the academic community, and there is ample scholarly evidence using relative measures of segregation that adjust for the underlying composition of students in school systems. Using these more sophisticated relative measures, such as the dissimilarity index and the variance-ratio index, examinations of trends find that segregation has been flat or modestly decreased over the past 20 years. In summary, massive resegregation is not occurring, and students are roughly just as evenly distributed across school systems as they were 20 years ago.

To be clear, segregation and racial isolation are serious problems in America and far more common than they should be, and efforts to shed a light on these problems are commendable. At every point in time between the Brown decision in 1954 and 2019, millions of American children have been educated in separate and unequal schools. This is an outrage that demands serious attention and action. But as we devise strategies and search for solutions, it is imperative that we are motivated by a complete picture of the problem we are trying to address. Segregation is a serious enough problem that it shouldn’t need to be worsening to be alarming. It’s bad enough as is.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman

Posted on May 22, 2019 @ 11:52am

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