The authors of the report — which was produced by the Beyond Test Scores Project at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University — say that their findings are disturbing, but they also offer a hopeful path forward.
The report and the following post were written by Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and co-host of the “Have You Heard” podcast, @edu_historian; Peter Piazza, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Education and Civil Rights and project director for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, @petertpiazza; Ashley Carey, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, @ashleyjcarey; and Rachel White, assistant professor of education at Old Dominion University, @imrachelWhite.
By Jack Schneider, Peter Piazza, Ashley Carey and Rachel White
Last month marked the 46th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Milliken v. Bradley decision, which marked the beginning of the end of school desegregation in the United States. In determining that school districts could not be compelled to integrate students across their borders, Milliken dramatically narrowed the promise of the 1954 Brown v. Board case. It made district boundaries the inviolable barriers that today do so much to separate young people from each other.
Nearly a half-century after the Milliken ruling, a national movement is once again emerging in support of school integration. In service of that aim, our research team wanted to better understand the present landscape. Looking at Massachusetts, which has long been characterized by the hallmarks of Milliken — many small, predominantly White school districts surrounding urban districts with majority non-White populations — we found cause for both hope and concern.
As detailed in our new report, the demography of the state has shifted, making suburban districts more diverse. As recently as 2008, one-third of all Massachusetts K-12 public schools were intensely segregated White schools in which more than 90 percent of students enrolled were White.
In the 12 years since, the number of such schools has decreased by 72 percent; today, they account for fewer than 1 in 10 schools. The state has also seen an increase in the number of racially diverse schools, in which no single racial group exceeds 70 percent of school enrollment and at least 25 percent of students are White.
At the same time, however, students of color are increasingly likely to attend schools where more than 90 percent of students are Black or Latino. While some of this has occurred in urban districts, the majority of that increase has happened in the state’s small cities and suburbs, mirroring similar trends across the country.
In other words, changing demographics are creating opportunities not just for racial integration, but also for deeper racial isolation. Rather than seize the opportunity to foster inclusion through smart policy, leaders have taken a laissez-faire approach, which we fear will ultimately lead to even higher levels of segregation.
As we suggest in our report, the overuse of test-based accountability also appears to be discouraging families from attending diverse schools. Because standardized test results are so closely aligned with demography, accountability determinations may indicate more about out-of-school variables than about school quality.
Insofar as that is the case, predominantly non-White schools may be systematically saddled with ratings they don’t deserve. Notably, although intensely segregated non-White schools comprise 9 percent of all Massachusetts schools, they make up nearly 50 percent of the state’s lowest-rated schools and just 2 percent of the state’s highest-rated schools.
Because school ratings are linked to real estate listings, they have a chilling effect on integration, steering White parents and affluent families away from districts with majority non-White schools.
Despite these disturbing trends, we see hope for moving toward a more integrated future. Specifically, we recommend changes to state accountability that move beyond overreliance on standardized tests and toward measures that are more reflective of school quality. State accountability systems could adopt a broader set of measures less closely tied to demography, which would also limit the influence of standardized test scores.
Even better, they might factor school diversity into accountability ratings — either by ensuring that school demography matches that of the broader community, or by establishing thresholds for diversity that all schools should strive for.
In addition, it will be important to tap the potential of within-district integration efforts. Of the nine Massachusetts districts with intensely segregated schools, six have the districtwide demography to produce uniformly diverse schools. In these districts, changes can occur within the narrow framework of Milliken, through a combination of increased public will and dedicated support from the state.
For example, several Massachusetts districts have policies similar to the well-known “controlled choice” system in Cambridge, which seeks to ensure that the population of each school is a socioeconomic match for the district as a whole.
Several districts, however, are so racially segregated that they could not integrate without somehow breaking the barriers set by Milliken. Boston, for instance, is only 15 percent White, and Springfield is only 10 percent White, though both border majority-White districts. These districts are part of the state’s long-running voluntary cross-district integration program, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or METCO. We recommend an expansion of this program, which is immune to Milliken because it is based on voluntary agreements between districts, rather than court mandates.
White families have been living behind walls for decades and many are now realizing the cost of such a practice — to them, personally, as well as to our society as a whole.
But perhaps the most profound rationale for integrated schools was articulated by Thurgood Marshall in his Milliken dissent: “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”
As White Americans collectively become conscious of long-standing racial injustices, and as all Americans look toward a more equitable and integrated society, our nation must channel energy into policy change that chips away at the foundations of segregated society.
In our schools, that means taking aim at the sacrosanct: district boundaries and test-based accountability.
Here’s the full report: