How We Talk About School Segregation

When we talk about school segregation, what are we really talking about? All too often, the conversation around our nation’s segregated public schools turns into a discussion about the achievement gap, school choice, or diversity. Why?   

Last year, the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that found K-12 schools across the country witnessed higher concentrations of poor and minority students in the last decade. The rising attention around our nation’s segregated schools has placed significant pressure on school districts across the country to address the disproportionate demographic representation in thousands of schools. Consequently, states such as Minnesota, New York, and Colorado - among others - have implemented new programs to integrate their public schools.

In Minnesota, the state Department of Education released the Achievement and Integration Program, which aims to achieve racial and economic integration, provide equitable educational opportunities, and increase academic success. The program calls on schools to develop their own integration plans and offers funding to schools to address the achievement gap.

 The New York City Department of Education has formed a Diversity Advisory Group, which includes diversity experts, parents, and students to steer and monitor the progress of Equity and Excellence for All, the city’s latest plan to integrate its public schools. The policy’s proposals include rezoning communities with diversity in mind, developing an accessible online platform for families to learn about school choice, and providing diversity grants.

 Additionally, the Denver Public School system has introduced the Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, a citywide committee responsible for researching housing patterns and developing policy recommendations around choice and academic programs to promote socio-economic integration.

Despite these efforts to to remedy school segregation across the nation, the conversation inevitably steers towards topics that are only tangentially related to the main issue at hand. In NYC’s Equity and Excellence for All, no mention of the words “segregation” or “integration” appeared in the policy proposal. Instead, the plan opts for “diversity” and “inclusion.” Word choice is important. “Segregation” and “integration” recognize the existence of a history of systemic obstacles that have consistently disadvantaged underrepresented populations, whereas “diversity” and “inclusion” diminishes that history, and in doing so, neglects the experience of those disadvantaged students.

When we talk about school segregation, it is often in the context of how to address it through various programs and policies, which is why a discussion about school segregation inevitably becomes a discussion about choice, the achievement gap, or diversity. But these are not the issues we should be focusing on when we talk about school segregation. Instead, we must examine and address the root causes of segregation and its influence on student performance. For example, inadequate housing, healthcare, and access to nutritional food cause chronic absenteeism. With fewer opportunities for summer enrichment and afterschool programs, students’ academic and developmental skills regress. Without the support of English-literate parents or a two parent household, a student’s ability to navigate the school system is significantly strained. To get even closer to the core of the issue, we must question not only how to integrate our neighborhoods and schools, but also ask why these inherently racist systems continue to persist in our society.

There is no silver bullet in education reform. The integration plans that are developing across the country are a step in the right direction, but it is vital that we - as teachers, parents, and education advocates - continue a critical and constructive conversation around policy decisions that directly influence our students.