The Persistence of Racial Segregation in American Schools

Overview

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that segregating schools based on race violates the US Constitution. Now, more than 60 years later, Jim Crow laws have been repealed, but has the United States lived up to the Supreme Court’s call for integration?

Unfortunately, by many measures, school segregation is on the rise in the United States. More than half of students are in districts considered “racially concentrated,” which is defined as a district that either has more than 75% white students or non-white students. School segregation is no longer enforced by the explicit prohibition of students of color and white students from attending the same schools, but it is caused by intentional government policies, including discriminatory housing policies, school district mapping, and school funding allocations.

School segregation is a problem. According to The Atlantic article Why Are American Schools Still Segregated?:

. . . today as in the Brown era, separate schools are unequal. "Schools of concentrated poverty and segregated minority schools are strongly related to an array of factors that limit educational opportunities and outcomes," wrote the authors of a 2012 report by the University of California–Los Angeles's Civil Rights Project. "These include less experienced and less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, less successful peer groups and inadequate facilities and learning materials."1

To make it concrete, racially concentrated non-white school districts receive, on average, $2,226 less in funding per student per year than predominantly white school districts, which represents a $23 billion funding gap per year throughout the United States.

Yet closing the funding gap is not enough. We will truly achieve integration when all resources in the educational system are distributed equitably and when school policies, curriculum, and pedagogy are designed with the most vulnerable students in mind. True integration benefits all students, from every racial and economic background.

This Teaching Idea provides two core activities, which give students an overview of school segregation in the United States today and open a discussion about possible responses to school segregation, as well as four extension activities, each of which explores a more specific topic relating to school segregation. Use the activities most relevant to your students or school.

  1. How does school segregation impact the quality of education students receive?

    One of the main criticisms of school segregation is that it creates a system where all students receive a lower quality education, as students of color are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources and all students miss opportunities to learn in diverse classrooms. Ask your students to individually reflect in their journals on the question: What is the purpose of education? Students will return to this question at the end of the activity to consider how segregation impacts learning.

    Then, provide students with an overview of school segregation. You can use the summary in the overview of this Teaching Idea, or the figures on the EdBuild page 23 Billion to illustrate current disparities. At the bottom of the EdBuild page, you can select your state to learn more about racial disparities in the educational system where you live.

    Explain to your students that you will show them the TED video How America’s Public Schools Keep Kids in Poverty, in which a public school teacher gives her perspective on racial segregation in the educational system. Play the video, stopping it at minute 4:25. Ask your students:

    • What kind of an education did Kandice Sumner get? Why did she have to ride an hour to school to get this education? What does this say about our educational system?
    • Why did Sumner feel guilty about her school experience?

    Continue playing the video from minute 4:25 until minute 8:00, and then discuss with your students:

    • What are the problems in the educational system that Sumner points out?

    Finally, ask students to revisit what they wrote at the beginning of the activity in response to the question: What is the purpose of education? Ask students to now reflect on the questions:

    • What changes would you make to your school to improve your education?
    • Would you include ideas for desegregation in your improvements? Why or why not?
  2. What are some solutions to school segregation?

    Play the rest of the TED video How America’s Public Schools Keep Kids in Poverty (8:00–13:50). Ask your students:

    • What solutions does Sumner describe?
    • Do these solutions address the effects of segregation or seek to end segregation? What is the difference?
    • Can you think of any other solutions that could help with either the effects of segregation or to end segregation?

    To learn more about one desegregation program, read the New York Times article Facing Segregated Schools, Parents Took Integration Into Their Own Hands. It’s Working. Discuss with your students:

    • What do you think it will take to end school segregation? Who is responsible for ending school segregation and why?
    • Do you think voluntary integration programs are a good solution to segregated schools? Why or why not?
    • What challenges could arise if your school district tried to desegregate schools in a similar way?
    • What could be the benefits of integration, for students, schools, or communities?

Citations

Extensions:

  1. What is happening in your own community?

    The Opportunity Atlas, created through Harvard University, gives a detailed map illustrating the incomes of people who grew up in different neighborhoods around the country. Use the map to look up your town and click on different neighborhoods within your town to see how much money people who grew up there now earn as adults. You can adjust the controls to see if people make different incomes based on their family’s economic status while they were growing up, on their race, or on their gender. Discuss with your students:

    • What disparities exist in your community?
    • Why do you think these disparities exist?
    • What role could schools play in reinforcing disparities?

    Use the EdBuild page 23 Billion (referenced in Activity 1) to learn more about racial disparities in the educational system where you live. At the bottom of the page, enter your state to access the information.

    Find out how much money your school district spends per students and how this funding compares to other districts by using the map in the NPR article Why America's Schools Have A Money Problem.

  2. A case study: How did a school district in Missouri grapple with school integration?

    Ask your students to listen to an episode of the podcast This American Life called The Problem We All Live With - Part 1 (59:00). The podcast begins with an overview of school segregation in the United States and then profiles the school district where Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2014, went to school. The podcast covers questions around failing schools and the tensions that can arise when schools attempt to integrate. This American Life provides a transcript and a beeped version of the podcast. After students listen to the podcast, discuss:

    • How they felt listening to the podcast
    • What surprised them in the podcast
    • What questions the podcast raised for them
  3. Can segregation exist within a school?

    Often when we talk about segregation, we focus on differences between schools or districts rather than within one school. The article The Other Segregation from The Atlantic describes how schools can create internal inequality. Read the article with your students and discuss:

    • What did you learn from the article? Was there anything in the article that confirmed something you already knew?
    • Is segregation a problem within your school? Does your school track students? Do you see segregation within your school? For example, between honors or AP classes (if your schools has them) and standard level classes?
    • What do you think your school could do to create more equality?
  4. What do the numbers reveal about segregation today?

    Have students learn more about segregation by analyzing two graphs, one that reveals how segregation is increasing and one that explores funding differences between majority white and majority non-white schools.

    First, show students the graph Percentage of Black Students in Schools That Are 90 to 100% Minority from the Vox article The Data Proves that School Segregation is Getting Worse. (Note: “border states” include Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware). Ask your students: What does the graph show? Do these trends surprise you? Why or why not? Why could increased segregation be problematic?

    Second, share the article The Data Are Damning: How Race Influences School Funding from The Atlantic with your students. Read the first three paragraphs together, and then look at the graph. Ask your students:

    • What does the graph show?
    • How could the funding gap between schools that are predominantly white and schools that are predominantly non-white contribute to inequality?

Additional Resource:

Our unit Choices in Little Rock focuses on efforts to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. The unit explores civic choices—the decisions people make as citizens in a democracy.

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