New Research: Economically Integrated Schools Have Higher Test Scores and Smaller Gaps

New research from Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy points to the positive impact for children when school districts use family income to integrate schools economically—as a proxy for racial integration that has been no longer permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court (except in cases where districts are under the old court orders for de jure segregation).  The researchers explore academic results in the Wake County School District after an economic integration program was launched in 2000.  Wake County Schools serve metropolitan Raleigh, North Carolina.

Duke Today explains that school districts in North Carolina “stopped using race-based assignment plans in the late 1990s after a series of court cases struck down the practice in various settings around the country.”  In his 1997 decision in the Louisville-Seattle case called Parents Involved, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts declared, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” School districts could no longer balance school enrollments by assigning students based on their race. Although the decision made it very difficult for school districts to reduce racial segregation, a handful of school districts including Wake County have experimented with integration by family income as a proxy for race.

According to Duke Today‘s report on the new study which is published in an academic journal, Urban Education (and paywalled), “In 2000, Wake implemented a new assignment policy based on income and achievement, in which no school would consist of more than 40 percent students receiving free or reduced lunch, nor more than 25 percent of students performing below grade level.”  Duke Today adds, “In 2010, the Wake County school board voted to stop using an income-based policy.  However, income remains a component—albeit a smaller component—of the current assignment policy.”  The researchers compared Wake County’s school achievement from 1992 to 2009, during the period when the schools were integrated by race and then, after 2000, by family income.

Researchers discovered, “When Wake County Public Schools switched from a school assignment policy based on race to one based on socioeconomic status, schools became slightly more segregated…  However, segregation increased much more rapidly in four other large North Carolina school districts that simply dropped race-based strategies and did not attempt to pursue diversity in other ways.”  The other districts studied are Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Cumberland County, Guilford County and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County.

While the researchers caution the results are descriptive and cannot be interpreted to prove that, “the new school assignment policy alone caused Wake’s test score gains or reduced the achievement gap between white and black students,”  the results are stunning nonetheless: “(M)ath and reading scores rose slightly and the achievement gap between black and white students narrowed…. In the four other N.C. districts, scores fell among black students after race-based school assignment stopped.”

Monique McMillian, of Morgan State University, who led Duke’s research team, comments: “The main message is, we may not want to give up on using diversity-based policies to achieve integration and address opportunity gaps and achievement gaps.”  Here is, “tentative evidence that income-based assignment policies improve achievement and increase diversity.”


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