How Students Experience Desegregation Efforts

Photo by dhendrix73 via Flickr
Photo by dhendrix73 via Flickr

Many have decried the continued segregation of U.S. public schools along race and class lines, calling for action to integrate racially and socioeconomically homogeneous schools. A common response from policymakers has been to introduce busing programs that move racial and economic minority students out of their neighborhood schools and into schools in need of diversity. When considering the success of such initiatives, education researchers have focused on student achievement, but how students experience these efforts is also important. Because busing programs frequently require students of color to enter wealthier and Whiter neighborhood schools, sociologists wonder how the “incoming” students experience these moves.

For a study in the Sociology of Education, Simone Ispa-Landa and Jordan Conwell compared the school experiences of 38 Black students participating in Diversify, a popular busing program aimed at increasing diversity in suburban schools, as well as 16 Black students who were placed on the program’s waitlist. The Diversify students attended high-income, predominantly White, suburban schools. The students described these schools as favoring White students in the achievement hierarchy due to racialized tracking practices and teachers’ low expectations for Black students’ achievement. The Diversify students also characterized high-performing schools as “White” and low-performing schools as “Black.”

The waitlisted students, who attended low-income, predominantly non-White, urban schools, did not racialize achievement or use academic performance to characterize schools as “White” or “Black.” The authors argue that waitlist students did not learn in an environment where White students dominated the achievement hierarchy, while the Diversify students directly observed and internalized the racialized achievement hierarchies in their schools.

Like other desegregation efforts, Diversify and similar programs that move students of color into White-dominated achievement hierarchies have unintended consequences. It seems that how schools are desegregated may matter more than how many schools are desegregated.