Want to Improve America’s Education System? Desegregate It


Written by Bryce Covert

America’s educational system is pretty bad at serving its students. Even Mitt Romney thinks so. In a speech yesterday, the presidential candidate called education “the great challenge of our time” and “the civil-rights issue of our era,” pointing out that minority children get screwed the most. The numbers behind his sentiment are pretty stark: in the OECD’s report on educational achievement among 70 countries, the U.S. falls almost in the middle, ranking 24th in reading, 30th in science, and 32nd in math.

With numbers like those it would make sense for the country to try whatever it could to improve learning for our kids. But we’re throwing out one method that has proven to have clear advantages: desegregation.

In an op-ed over the weekend, David L. Kirp explained the research behind this idea. As he notes, “economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools.” Those children were more likely to graduate from high school and college. And it wasn’t a zero sum game in which white children fell backward as black children moved up. “Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better,” he writes.

Yet the achievement gap has been yawning in recent years. As of 2007, white students were scoring an average of 26 points higher than black students in every subject. We may look to the fact that schools have become increasingly segregated. There’s purposeful re-segregation, as in the recent policy changes in North Carolina. One school district eliminated a busing program in 2002 and another is set to follow. Meanwhile, the Wake County school board struck down its program that integrated schools based on socioeconomic status. Or take the less deliberate example of New York City. While the public school population is as diverse as the city’s, about 650 of its 1,700 schools have populations that are 70 percent a single race, according to the New York Times’s analysis. More than half are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic.

So no time like the present to re-desegregate our school systems in order to raise educational achievement. If we want to work on how we stack up against other countries, we would do well to consider it as a strong option in our arsenal.

The effects can go beyond test scores. Kirp notes that the positive effects of desegregation stayed with children throughout their lives. One study showed that “black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity.” That’s good for the rest of the economy. And unlocking educational potential for those who don’t happen to be white will also boost it. In fact, a new paper says that as much as 20 percent of growth in American productivity over the past 50 years can be attributed to increased equality for black people and women. It makes sense: by letting a diverse array of people compete in the workforce, you’re more likely to find the most talented for the job.

Sometimes our educational failings can seem large, complicated, and impossible to solve. Many of them are. But the solution of going back to purposefully desegregating our schools is staring us in the face.

This post was originally published by the Roosevelt Institute.


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Photo from Thinkstock


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

my school wasn't segregated.. but black students tended to sit with other black students at lunch.. Hispanics sat together.. ect. how can we MAKE kids want to be the "odd man out"?

Jen Matheson
Past Member 4 years ago

Stacey, you make some grat pos espically about being bussed long distance. I hadn't even thought of that but ot makes sense. I also agree with you about vactions being way too short and makng books lighter to help with the kids' backpack.

Stacy S.
Stacy S.4 years ago

Cont (did get cut off, short bit):
The school book publishers will hate that suggestion, but given how much they charge, it would save a chunk of educational budget towards the other things I've listed.

Stacy S.
Stacy S.4 years ago

Cont (last part unless cut off, sorry for the long rant):

Year Round Schools:
This is an option I never personally experienced, but which I think is a very good idea. Not only does it mean teaching won't be a job where you're effectively unemployed for the summer, but think of all the stuff students forget over the holiday. Speaking of the summer holiday, it keeps getting shorter! There need to be decent breaks so kids can spend time with their family being kids, but these could be spaced around the year, both for holidays and to serve to divide the year into quarters. More than a week at a time is a bit much. The time saved not having to review and relearn things would easily make up for reinstating gym class, recess, art, and music.

The Book And Homework Problem:
This was such a bad issue in my middle school that I STILL have back problems. No student should have to lug home a three foot tall stack of hardback books every single day. There should be time in classes to do classwork, and homework should be minimized. Also, if the school year is divided into quarters, divide the BOOKS into quarters. Make them thinner, and hand out the new section at the beginning of each quarter. Also consider making them paperbacks to conserve materials and weight. And for heaven's sake, we do NOT need brand new editions of books every single year unless there has been some breakthrough in the field that affects the source material. The school book publishers will hate that suggestion

Stacy S.
Stacy S.4 years ago

Too many kids, and you end up with a bunch of cliques and groups that will fight in one way or another. My middle school was like this... I usually didn't even know all the names of all the kids in any single class, much less the whole school.

Gym and Recess:
Additionally, my grade school had gym class and recess. Kids NEED to move. Kids that fidget in their seats have been sitting still too long. They do NOT, in most cases, need ADHD medication to make them sit still, or snapped at not to fidget. Studies have shown that fidgeting in your seat can help prevent obesity. And kids focus better on learning when they have breaks to let the data-dump sink in.

Good food:
Because of the way my grade school was, and the size of the town it was in, we had homemade food and fresh veggies. It wasn't until middle school that I was faced with the 'tough rectangular object claiming to be pizza', among other horrors. The end result was that I often ended up eating out of the school snack vending machines just to find something that could pass for edible. Growing children need GOOD food to function properly. Yes, this could be a bit tricky, but a good start would be hiring school cooks that do more than open canned goods and use a microwave to reheat those and over-processed frozen stuff. Also, NO cutting out breakfast!

Stacy S.
Stacy S.4 years ago

The problem with this idea is, like it says, it requires randomly selecting kids who will be sent to school far away from their home. I lived out in the country as a kid and had to endure a two hour bus ride. Between that and homework, I barely had time to sleep. I had to be up at 5am, and was often up until 11pm finishing homework. This isn't healthy.

Here are some of my ideas for fixing the school system.

SMALL schools:
First off, my grade school was great. We only had three classrooms because there weren't enough students to justify more space. Third, fourth, and fifth grade together in a room totaled 15 kids one year. School consolidation, which started the year I was in 5th grade, was a MISTAKE. If you crowd kids in like sardines, there will be fights, just like when you overcrowd any other living creature. Also, enormous classes mean teachers can't maintain any kind of order. Easing that up and going back to SMALL schools with SMALL classes will not only increase jobs (as you'd need more teachers and so on), but would probably do more than anything else to fix some of the overcrowded inner-city schools. Humans are, by primary nature, pack animals. If you have a small school and small classes, the students subconsciously think of the whole school as their 'pack'. My grade school was such that you knew the names of every other student from 5th down to kindergarten. Too many kids, and you end up with a bunch of cliques and groups that will fight in one way or anoth

Daniel G.
Daniel G.4 years ago


In contrast, a full magnet school, which is by all means far less common, still a system that considering its size is by all means in a testing phase as there may be maybe only a a few or none in existence per state resulted in students being bused from all areas and all demographics boasting state of the arts technology and experienced professors that where accessible by all the students, and education atmosphere where students where in contact with students from all kinds of demographics and without the racial tension resulting from a system where some students observe preferential treatment due to a perceived advantage in their education. In general, magnet students in Florida are gifted students, but the full magnet high school I attended was open to all students and where approved after they completed a considerable application process with minimum requirements. The full magnet program I attended, MAST Academy in Key Biscayne, Florida, has ranked amongst the top 100 schools in the country since it was established. every single year, two time blue ribbon school of excellence winner selected by the Department of Education (to my knowledge, I graduated in 2007), ranked amongst the top in every kind of state standardized test if people really care about that, had students taking the largest number of AP classes not as a requirement for their education but because of their interest, and just encouraged students to try harder.

Daniel G.
Daniel G.4 years ago


third, the students that where not considered advanced and from the area where placed in the temporary classroom units, often lacking air conditioning in south florida, while the new buildings constructed to deal with the increasing students populations where given to the magnet students, with new structures needed but never keeping up with the increasing students population. Finally, the new books where given to the magnet students above all other students.

Integration in this case was from students coming from better areas into areas considered to fair worse, so it pressured schools with very few resources to put almost everything to cater to the magnet students as it would signify more resources coming from outside into the school for additional projects, but it created a scene that created considerable racial tension. The record of my school included on average at least 2 fights per day, some actually quite serious, a series of cover-ups of the likes that could easily attain national media attention, and almost continuous police presence.

In contrast, a full magnet school, which is by all means far less common, still a system that considering its size is by all means in a testing phase as there may be maybe only a a few or none in existence per state resulted in students being bused from all areas and all demographics boasting state of the arts technology and experienced professors that where accessible by all the students, and education atmos

Daniel G.
Daniel G.4 years ago

As a student that attended a partial magnet middle school and a full magnet program, I would say that full magnet programs are by far the best education systems albeit it probably comes at a premium of the price as a full magnet program generally buses all its students into the school.

Most schools that we know as magnet programs (a program that was created during the civil rights era to integrate schools) are actually partial magnet programs, where students are bused from other neighborhoods to integrate a school. Such programs boast particular concentrations to attract students into those schools. For example, my middle partial magnet program was in one of the most impoverished, predominantly black neighborhoods in the country, it boasted a state of the art computer programs. The open houses won parents over by giving parents tours of the state of the art classrooms, and projects that the students had "recently" completed as well as videos of activities and competitions the students had also "recently" completed.

It was not until my last year, and even earlier during 7th grade that I realized how this program intended to integrate the school was actually segregating the students. First, the wings with the technology could only be accessed by magnet students, not the local students, second, the lunch was segregated between the magnet students, the advanced students from the area and the students that were not considered in advanced classes from the area, third, the

Frances C.
Frances C.4 years ago

Realistically it works when the neighborhoods are integrated, then the children all go to the same schools. They are friends already, and it is no problem. I know because that is where I lived and went to school. We played together in and out of school. I grew up with no fear of other ethnic or racial people, and am for equal, and civil rights for everyone. I hope someday we will have neighborhoods again where everyone is welcome.