The Pulse

Duke study highlights the need for in-school reforms to truly integrate schools

By: - July 27, 2021 6:37 am

An innovative new study from researchers at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy examines the racial segregation that takes place within North Carolina schools, highlighting the need for more deliberate school-level policies to truly integrate schools.

While many studies have examined segregation across districts and schools, this study provides a rare, in-depth look at the segregation that happens within a school building. The report’s findings bolster the recommendations of education advocates calling for a deeper understanding of school integration that looks beyond simply moving students in one school building or the other.

The within-school segregation identified by the Duke report is often the result of student tracking – grouping students according to their (supposed) ability level. Tracking can be a problematic driver of inequality. First, the groupings may reflect the biases of educators or be a product of parental pressure, denying opportunities on the basis of race and class. Second, the “advanced” groups tend to be assigned to more experienced teachers with more engaging curricula, widening opportunities going forward.

Data confirms that students of color in North Carolina are frequently tracked into lower-level classes. CREED’s E(race)ing Inequities report detailed how students of color in North Carolina are underrepresented in honors and AP courses and have higher chances of being taught by novice teachers.

The Duke report finds that both middle and high schools, but not elementary schools, exhibit a substantial amount of within-school segregation. Interestingly, the researchers find that schools with lower across-school segregation often have higher levels of within-school segregation.

The researchers illuminate this point by contrasting segregation in Mecklenburg and Wake Counties. In the early 2000s, Mecklenburg County embraced a “neighborhood schools” approach and saw a substantial increase in segregation across schools. By contrast, Wake County embraced an integration policy, seeking to keep schools relatively balanced in terms of student income. But while Wake County’s schools appeared integrated, the researchers’ examination of classroom assignments found another story:

Although Mecklenburg County had by far the highest between-school segregation among the five, no county exceeded the within-school segregation levels of Wake County.

The researchers also find, somewhat surprisingly, that segregation between white and Hispanic students was more extreme than that between white and Black students. This is noteworthy as the share of Hispanic students in North Carolina schools has grown from 3% in 1998 to 17% in 2017.

Finally, the report found that Black and Hispanic students tended to be enrolled in less rigorous courses than their white peers. The underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students relative to white students in advanced courses means that “Black and Hispanic students in North Carolina are exposed to a qualitatively different curriculum than are White students, with the latter being more likely to be in advanced courses.”

In all, the report’s findings provide an important reminder real integration isn’t achieved simply by moving students between schools. Educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders must continue to push for policies and practices that harbor real integration at the classroom level.

The idea of real integration is best described by the student leaders of Integrate NYC, who have outlined the “5Rs of Real Integration.” Their framework includes specific policy recommendations under each of the following areas to create schools that are truly integrated:

  1. Race and Enrollment: Schools must provide a diverse and inclusive environment for every NYC public school student.
  2. Resources: Funding systems must provide equitable distribution of resources across schools to meet the constitutional requirements of a “sound, basic education.”
  3. Relationships: Schools must be considerate and empathetic of the identities of all students, focus on the power of different backgrounds, and act of build relationships between students across group identities.
  4. Restorative Justice: All high schools should be free of police and military presence, safe, free of metal detectors, protective of the integrity and humanity of each student, and help build student leaders.
  5. Representation: School faculties should be inclusive, elevating the voices of communities of color, immigrant communities, and the LGBT community so that student identities and experiences are reflected in the leadership.

Such reforms (more detail on which can be found here) are long overdue in North Carolina schools. As the Duke study documents, North Carolina schools remain far too segregated. As a result, Black and Hispanic students continue to be denied the same curriculum and opportunities being offered to white students.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.