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"The Effects of Racially and Economically Isolated Schools on Student Performance"

September/October 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

Over the past two decades, the United States Supreme Court has issued rulings that severely limit the ability of school boards to use race as a factor in student assignment policies as one way to foster diversity. To increase our understanding of the impact of these rulings, PRRAC commissioned this study to address a single question:

What is the effect on student performance of racially isolated schools?

In answering this question, we recognized the need to also address the following:

If the effect on student performance is negative, can better-qualified teachers and other resources make up for the effect of racial isolation?

Using English I and Algebra I scores for 9th-grade North Carolina public school students on End-of-Course (EOC) exams for 2007-2008, we analyzed the performance of the population of North Carolina 9th graders as a whole (N=134,646) and a subpopulation of students in three counties (Pitt, Wayne and Halifax) with high levels of racial and economic isolation. The five school systems in these three counties comprise our “Focus Site” (N=3,625).

Our decision to study economic as well as racial isolation was based on North Carolina’s high poverty levels (particularly in urban areas and in the coastal plain and mountains) and the significant impact of economic isolation on student performance.

We controlled for individual student race and ethnicity, economic disadvantage (eligibility for Free and Reduced Price Lunch, or FRPL), and designation as gifted. We also analyzed the effect of school-level characteristics, including teacher experience, teacher training (advanced degrees), teacher accreditation (fully licensed), the percentage of economically disadvantaged students, and the percentage of students who were Black or Latino. The bivariate relationships between racial isolation and test scores provide a clear picture of the effects of racial and economic isolation and the academic cost to students who are enrolled in these schools.

More than 8,000 9th graders in North Carolina (and an estimated 100,000+ students in all grades) attend schools that are more than 75% Black, and most of these schools are also high-poverty and low-performing schools. We found that racial concentration, per se, had no significant effect, but that disparities in academic performance were tied to concentrations of poverty and the significant disparity in instructional resources (fully certified teachers and teachers with advanced degrees) present in the highly segregated schools. Analysis for a Focus Site subpopulation of systems that had a high percentage of high schools with severe levels of racial and economic isolation produced similar findings.
We found that fully licensed teachers and teachers with advanced degrees can improve student performance. We found that teachers in North Carolina’s most segregated schools (more than 75% Black) were significantly less likely to be fully licensed and significantly less likely to have advanced degrees.

We also found that Black students are much less likely to be designated gifted, and that alternative schools (e.g., schools for exceptional or at-risk students) are likely to be severely segregated (more than 75% Black) and to have teachers who are poorly trained for their students’ disabilities and in their subject areas.

We calculated the cost of racial and economic segregation on academic performance for one severely segregated North Carolina high school. Goldsboro High School, in Wayne County was 99.4% Black in a school system that was 56% minority and 81% economically disadvantaged in a county that averages 65.8%. If an attempt was made to counterbalance such economic and racial isolation by improving resources (such as increased training and tenure of teachers) at this single school, the cost would be $1,580 per student. As Goldsboro High School had 616 students (2007-2008), this equals $970,000. (It should be noted that our previous research—funded by the Paul Green Foundation—in Wayne County schools showed that the county’s residential patterns did not necessitate racial or economic segregation. In that study, we used Geographic Information Systems to illustrate that school attendance zones could be designed to provide integrated neighborhood schools.)

Our analysis suggests three complementary strategies for improving academic performance in North Carolina’s high schools: (1) create school attendance areas that will create racially and economically balanced schools; (2) require teachers to be fully licensed; and (3) provide funding to hire teachers with advanced degrees in the subject area taught. In addition, we agree with the National Research Council’s 2002 recommendations that the state should undertake a thorough review of its policies toward gifted and “special needs” students, and that educators should be required to first provide special needs students with high-quality instruction and social support in a regular setting before determining whether special services are needed, in order to make sure that minority students who are poorly prepared for school are not assigned to special education for that reason.

In sum, investments to improve resources can increase academic performance, but these investments are not being made in North Carolina’s predominantly-Black schools. Moreover, such efforts can only mitigate some of the adverse academic impacts created by attendance at racially and economically isolated schools. Investments to improve resources and the quality of education programs that overcome the effects of economic disadvantages can increase academic performance in the short term and future employment opportunities in the long term. Strong academic performance in our schools is critical to the state’s and nation’s competitiveness in a global economy.

This research is integral to advocacy provided for and by students and their families in highly segregated schools, as they attempt to demonstrate the harms of such hypersegregation. The report has been submitted by the NAACP to the U.S. Justice Department—together with additional research by Ann Moss Joyner of the Cedar Grove Institute—to support a Title VI claim against Wayne County Board of Education. This Title VI complaint was the first such claim accepted by the Obama Administration’s Justice Department for investigation. It uses GIS to demonstrate that hypersegregated schools are not necessary to achieve “neighborhood” schools in Wayne County. More recently, the research has also been provided to groups opposing the elimination of Wake County’s Diversity Policy.

Further information is available from Ann Moss Joyner,

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