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Parents at Champaign’s Unit 4 asked: Does desegregation help close the achievement gaps? Here’s what five educational researchers say

When the Champaign Unit 4 School District decided to complete desegregation of its schools based on socioeconomic status, very few Champaign Unit 4 District parents liked the idea, regardless of their racial or economic background.

After all, Unit 4 has tried several desegregation plans over the past 50 years. If those efforts haven’t filled the opportunity gaps among students, why try again?

The Illinois newsroom asked five education professors to answer this simple question: Does desegregation work?

Research states that socioeconomic blending helps students

Yes, desegregation works. This is the answer of the first professor, Gregory Palardy.

An associate professor at the University of California-Riverside, he constantly analyzes data on inclusive education. He says he helps students from low socioeconomic backgrounds—or SES—be successful.

“A lot of research suggests that attending an SES high school rubs you off, even more than your own SES. It’s amazing,” Palardy says.

Socioeconomic status means three things: parental income, parental education level, and parental occupation. While it doesn’t mean race, race and class are related.

Researchers from around the world have been studying the impact of SES on students for decades. A 2010 summary paper reviewed data from 30 papers and found that they all point in the same direction.

“If you have peers who come from higher SES families, they tend to have better educated parents. Children from these backgrounds tend to have better results and more advanced academic skills. And these factors tend to infect their peers,” Palardy says.

Palardy says meta-analyses can sometimes overstate the findings, because they overlook research that doesn’t show significant results and goes unpublished.

However, she says her research on long periods of school data comes to the same conclusion: desegregation still matters and makes students more likely to achieve academically, including going to college.

US schools remain segregated

If researchers crunched the numbers on this so many times and overall found the same thing, why didn’t desegregation fill in the gaps in the findings?

Few places have been completely desegregated. Today, about one-third of American students attend schools where the majority of students are of the same race, according to a 2022 report from the US Government Accountability Office.

The highest percentage of segregated schools are predominantly white.

According to the report, half of white students across the country still attend mostly white schools.

And the Northeast and Midwest have a higher percentage of segregated schools than other parts of the country, the report said.

Even in schools that appear integrated from the outside, their classrooms may not be.

The second professor we talked to about this is Olatokunbo Fashola. She is an education research professor at American University in Washington, DC

Fashola says white families have often created silos within black schools to avoid integration. In one case in Pennsylvania, where she served as an expert witness, schools created advanced placement courses.

“As soon as they were told they had to integrate, the number of AP classes doubled and tripled. And that’s where you saw all the white kids. All of a sudden, a school that never had AP classes, the number of AP classes just increased,” says Fashola.

Schools have often desegregated in harmful ways

School districts have inflicted deep wounds on black communities in the name of integration. Districts, particularly in the South, dramatically reduced their black faculty following the Brown v. Board of Education.

The third professor is Asif Wilson, who researches teaching and curricula at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Wilson says districts have removed the pillars of local communities.

“In the past, teachers lived in communities. So they went to the shops, they went to the churches, they were part of the community kind of environment, and desegregation has completely stopped that,” Wilson says.

Wilson says black teachers knew better how to teach their students and knew more about their history.

“What does it mean, then, when you disrupt the kind of relatedness that Black students have, not just between Black teachers, but also Black history, Black channels of Black excellence, channels of Black memory?” asks Wilson.

In Illinois, nearly 17 percent of students are black, but only 6 percent of teachers are black, according to the latest state board of education report card.

Desegregation works with willing teachers and parents

So is desegregation still worth it, if the backlash can be so effective and harmful?

Wilson says no. She wants to see neighborhood schools with the resources and teaching styles that will make them effective for black students.

Our fourth professor says yes, desegregation is effective. It just has to be done right.

Loyce Caruthers is a professor of education at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

She oversaw — and was frustrated by — the desegregation efforts herself.

He says teachers must be on board with racial and class integration for it to be successful.

“I strongly believe that integrated schools are better for children and lead to good outcomes for children. Overall, I think if teachers do what they have to do, students will kind of follow through,” says Caruthers.

Caruthers says this includes culturally responsive teaching, where instruction is tailored to students’ interests and backgrounds.

Racial segregation is important for politics, society

Fellow from Missouri, Brad Poos, is the last professor we spoke to. Poos is associate director of the Institute for Urban Education, a teacher training program at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and works frequently with Caruthers.

Poos says that integration has value for social peace.

“We are seeing that schools are more segregated today than they have ever been in the last 50 years. If we look politically, for example, we see that these divisions really come to the surface. And I can’t help but think that some of these issues are a result of us living apart,” says Poos.

And those are the five professors. Mostly, they say socioeconomic desegregation helps students. It is the way districts have often desegregated – or resisted – that has been so damaging.

Emily Hays is a reporter at Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

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