On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board decision that school segregation was unconstitutional. Yet 65 years later, schools in major US cities remain more segregated than neighborhoods, and many students attend classes filled mostly with students who look like them.
At the same time, opportunity and achievement gaps exist between low-income children and children from more affluent families and communities.
Rucker C. Johnson, author of the recent book Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works, said this situation is partly the result of “amnesia” regarding school integration policies. Johnson describes three myths that continue to impede progress on school integration.
Myth 1: We tried school integration for a long time
Johnson describes how America truly enforced school integration for only 15 years. “We reached peak integration levels in 1988, and each year since, we regressed… to the point where the levels of segregation are back to where they were before integration began in earnest.” There are policies that school districts have that can alleviate segregation, including how school attendance boundaries are drawn, and new school choice policies.
Myth 2: School integration didn’t work
As Johnson put it, “We turned away from school integration as a goal and desegregation as a strategy partly because of the myth that integration didn’t work.” But Johnson’s research found far-reaching, long-lasting benefits from school integration and progressive education policies. “What we document is not only that these policies have lasting impacts on education attainment, earnings, and breaking the cycle of poverty, we also show integration affected not just the children of desegregated schools, but that it had impacts on their children as well.”
Myth 3: School integration is irrelevant
Segregated schools are still a reality and still contribute to achievement gaps. “Despite the unprecedented diversity of the nation’s schoolchildren, more than half attend hypersegregated schools, in which more than three-quarters of their peers are of the same race,” said Johnson.
According to Johnson, the achievement gap has grown by about two-thirds over the past three decades and now represents a one-and-a-half-grade difference between poor students and those from affluent backgrounds.
The playing field created by America’s education system is clearly uneven, but activists, practitioners, and researchers agree that school integration can support equal opportunity. “Diversity is going to be a centerpiece of our collective future,” said Johnson. “The only question is whether we are preparing our students for that reality.”