Research Report When Is a School Segregated? Making Sense of Segregation 65 Years after Brown v. Board of Education
Tomás Monarrez, Brian Kisida, Matthew Chingos
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Many students are enrolled in segregated school systems with unequal access to resources. In this report, we present a measure that can help policymakers identify the schools in their system that are contributing the most to segregation.

How our measure differs from traditional metrics

Much research on segregation relies on an absolute measure of segregation, which evaluates exposure and isolation between students of different racial groups within individual schools. But these measures can be misleading because they are strongly influenced by the racial composition of students in the neighborhood or system.

Schools in areas with few white students could be considered “hypersegregated” for simply reflecting the pool of students they draw from. On the other hand, because these metrics often consider exposure of historically underserved populations—blacks and Hispanics—to other students—whites and Asians—they can miss schools that are predominantly white and Asian with a small minority community while penalizing schools that are predominantly black or Hispanic.

Our Segregation Contribution Index assesses how much each school within a system—whether a district, county, or city—contributes to segregation by examining what would happen to segregation within the system if a school’s actual racial composition were perfectly integrated—that is, replaced with a composition corresponding to that of the school system.

Because redistributing students across a system could require students to travel long distances or create other logistical problems, we also assess whether systemwide integration would be improved if schools more closely resembled their neighborhoods.

Our Segregation Contribution Index allows stakeholders to see which schools in a system contribute most to segregation or integration, helping policymakers better target their school integration efforts.

Which schools contribute most to segregation?

The measure can also be applied to groups of schools, allowing us to analyze different sectors. Our analysis finds the following:

  • Holding school size constant, private and charter schools tend to have higher average contributions to segregation than traditional public schools.
  • Charter schools are overrepresented among schools that are both significantly more and less black and Hispanic than the surrounding neighborhood.
  • In neighborhoods with low shares of black and Hispanic students, private schools are 30 percentage points more likely than traditional public schools to segregate the system.

Context matters

Private schools account for a large share of segregation relative to their enrollment share. Charter schools’ contributions are high often because of where they are located. But traditional public schools serve almost 90 percent of students—segregation cannot be eliminated unless these schools better integrate.

The index is not perfect. It does not, for example, demonstrate causal relationships and should not be used to assign blame to individual schools or types of schools. If one school significantly contributes to segregation, closing it will not necessarily better integrate the system because those students might sort into other schools in ways that exacerbate segregation. Our intent is to shed light on which schools contribute more to segregation in order to guide policymakers as they work to improve integration.

Research Areas Education Race and equity
Tags K-12 education Racial segregation Secondary education Racial equity in education School segregation
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy