American Schools Are Not Resegregating

Let’s start with a math problem. Say you have ten marbles. Eight are red and two are blue. If you blindly draw two marbles, what are the chances you’ll draw the two blue ones?

Now let’s say you have ten marbles, but this time five are red and five are blue. If you blindly draw two marbles again, what are the chances you’ll draw two blue ones this time?

The answer to the second question is ten times higher than the first (2/9 versus 1/45). By changing the composition of the problem by a little bit, the odds have changed dramatically.

This is roughly what’s happening in American schools. In 1968, eight out of ten students were white, and two out of ten were non-white. By 2012, the share of white students had fallen to about five in ten.

While students are not marbles, we’re facing the same basic math problem when we talk about school segregation. On the surface, American schools today appear to be more segregated than ever. The chance that a black or Hispanic student will attend a school with students of their same race has increased significantly, but that’s due to the composition of our society, not sorting. Once you take into account changes in student demographics, American schools are actually less segregated than in the past.

There’s a body of academic research documenting this phenomenon. But perhaps it helps to see it visually. The graph at right comes from a piece by Steven Rivkin for Education Next, documenting the decline in what’s called the “dissimilarity index.” As Rivkin explains it, the dissimilarity index measures, “the percentage of blacks who would need to change schools if blacks and whites were to attend each school in the same percentage as their percentage of public school enrollment.” Across the country, the dissimilarity index has not improved all that much at the district level, but at the school level it’s fallen from 81 percent in 1968 to 66 percent in 2012.

Most of these gains occurred in the 1970s, and the gains have been smaller since then. But remember, these gains are on top of America’s growing diversity. American society has become more diverse, and our schools have integrated even faster.

I’d like to see even more integration, for lots of reasons. There are real benefits to integration efforts, but we should be careful to diagnose our problems accurately, avoid distorting the data, and be wary of universal solutions. As our country gets more diverse over time, it’s going to look like segregation is getting worse. But we have to go deeper to understand what’s really happening.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman 

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