Modern-Day School Segregation

This article was written by Emma Garcia for the Economic Policy Institute. We do not own any content in this article. Click here to read the original article.


Well over six decades after the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” schools to be unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, schools remain heavily segregated by race and ethnicity.

What are the consequences of this lack of progress in integrating schools for black children?

  • It depresses education outcomes for black students; as shown in this report, it lowers their standardized test scores.

  • It widens performance gaps between white and black students.

  • It reflects and bolsters segregation by economic status, with black students being more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.

  • It means that the promise of integration and equal opportunities for all black students remains an ideal rather than a reality.

In contrast, when black students have the opportunity  to attend schools with lower concentrations of poverty and larger shares of white students they perform better, on average, on standardized tests.

Black children are still relegated to separate and unequal schools

Findings on school segregation and student performance come from the National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the most comprehensive study of education performance in the country. We use the most recently released data to describe school segregation and its consequences for math performance of eighth-graders. These data show that only about one in eight white students (12.9%) attends a school where a majority of students are black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian. (We refer to this group collectively as students of color hereafter.) In contrast, nearly seven in 10 black children (69.2%) attend such schools.

Black students are also in economically segregated schools. Less than one in three white students (31.3%) attend a high-poverty school, compared with more than seven in 10 black students (72.4%).

In America, race and poverty are intertwined, doubly disadvantaging black students

The known connection between race/ethnicity and poverty in the United States appears in data on the composition of schools attended by for black children. A black child faces a very high probability of ending up in a school where a majority of her peers are both poor and students of color. While less than 1 in 10 white students (8.4%) attend high-poverty schools with a high share of students of color, six in 10 black students (60.0%) do.

In contrast, about a fourth of white students (23.5%) attend schools where most of their peers are white and not poor, while only 3.1 percent of black children attend such schools.

When black children have the opportunity to attend the same schools that white children routinely attend, black children perform markedly better on standardized math tests, which we use here as a measure of education performance.

Math scores of black eighth-graders in low-poverty, mostly white schools and in high-poverty schools with a high share of students of color. In high-poverty schools with a high share of students of color, black students scored on average 20 points less on standardized math tests than their counterparts in low-poverty, mostly white schools (255.4 vs. 275.3). In other words, scores are much lower in the type of school that black children are overwhelmingly more likely to attend (high-poverty, mostly students of color) than in the type of school (low-poverty, mostly white) that only 3.1% of black children have a chance of attending.

The gap between black and white student test scores is larger in high-poverty schools with a high share of students of color than in low-poverty, mostly white schools. By promoting policies that facilitate a shift away from our current pattern of heavily segregated schools, we would thus help close the gap between black and white students overall.

Unaddressed school segregation is a major longstanding policy failure. It consigns most black children to schools that put them behind academically. The persistent performance gaps between white and black children that challenge the education and career prospects of black children from early on demonstrate that school segregation continues to cast a very long shadow—from well before Brown v. Board of Education to today, and into the future.


Black students today face levels of segregation comparable to the 1960s and 1970s. Overall, Hispanic students are not as segregated as their black peers, but they have become increasingly segregated in recent decades and currently face high levels of segregation. Of particular concern is the recent spike in intense segregation, where greater than 90 percent of the students in a school are black or Hispanic.

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What is the correlation between poverty and race?

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How does poverty contribute to school segregation?

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Why is it more difficult to excel in low income schools?


Overwhelmingly white school districts received $23 billion more than predominantly nonwhite school districts in state and local funding in 2016, despite serving roughly the same number of children, a new report finds.

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