The End of School Desegregation?

February 9, 2016—According to Georgetown College's Assistant Professor of Sociology Leslie Hinkson, the United States has given up on school desegregation. Her latest research shows that by failing to pursue desegregation and integration, U.S. public schools are making it harder for minority students to thrive academically.

Hinkson’s research broadly explores how race operates “primarily at the institutional level,” such as in public schools and the medical field. “Today, the average black student scores below 75 percent of whites on most standardized assessments,” she said. Her recent research seeks to understand “what explains this black-white test-score gap.”

Schools have made little progress in diminishing the test score gap since the 1980s, and the main decline in the test-score gap occurred between 1971 and 1988. “Interestingly, in 1970, the percentage of black students in intensely segregated schools—meaning they comprised 90 percent of more of school population—began declining in every region of the country except the Northeast,” she continued.

To understand why integration might explain the difference in student test scores, Hinkson searched for schools that were on track to eliminate the test-score gap among students. Students educated on military bases, or in Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools, were more likely to outperform their peers in 49 states. The test-score gap between black and white students, across all age groups, was less than in any other state.

When Hinkson asked former DoDEA students what they thought explained her findings, most responded that DoDEA schools have “better resources, more involved teachers, and integration.” In integrated schools, minority students benefit from greater access to social capital, cultural capital, and human capital across families and communities.

“For white students there doesn’t seem to be a benefit for test scores, but there’s not a penalty either,” Hinkson said. “[But] studies have shown that white students who attend integrated schools are more likely to have interracial friendships [and] are more comfortable in integrated spaces. In many ways, they’re more civic minded.”

“It’s for students of color that we see the benefit,” she continued. “When they go to integrated schools, their test scores go up.”

But since 1988, the number of intensely segregated schools has increased, and today, minority students are more racially and socioeconomically isolated than they were 1971, Hinkson says.

One of the most important aspects of this problem, Hinkson notes, is understanding the critical distinction between desegregation and integration. “There’s a difference in desegregating a space and integrating it. Just because you have people of different hues inhabiting the same space doesn’t mean they are interacting,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they are being treated the same way, [and] it doesn’t mean they are being exposed to the same academic material.”

Hinkson hopes that we can counter the end of school desegregation with meaningful attempts to talk about race in families, communities, and schools. “There’s this idea that if you note racial difference, it’s bad. What is bad is when we all know that we note these racial differences, and we don’t talk about it,” she said. “If we are trying to get rid of a problem that is largely race-based, you can’t approach it in a color blind way. You need to have a policy or approach that actually takes race into consideration,” she explained.

In schools where academic tracks are “highly correlated with race,” not talking about race allows students to make assumptions about themselves and their peers.

“That’s why when we talk about race, I think that schools are such an important institution to focus on. I think they totally shape who we are going to interact with in the future, how we are going to interact in the future, and how we see ourselves as thinking members of a community.”

—Elizabeth Wilson

Related Information

Professor Leslie Hinkson recently presented her research in a Tedx talk. Watch the talk below: