Was 'Brown v. Board' a Failure?

A new study shows a steady but significant return of racial isolation to America's schools.

integrated-top.jpgStudents at Barnard Elementary School in Washington, D.C., one of the first schools to desegregate after Brown. (Library of Congress)

After half a century, America's efforts to end segregation seem to be winding down. In the years after Brown v. Board of Education, 755 school districts were under desegregation orders. A new Stanford study reports that as of 2009, that number had dropped to as few as 268.

The study is the first to take a comprehensive look at whether court-ordered busing successfully ended the legacy of Jim Crow in public education, and it suggests a mission that is far from accomplished. On average, those districts that stopped forcing schools to mix students by race have seen a gradual but steady--and significant--return of racial isolation, especially at the elementary level.

It's unclear what effect school "re-segregation" will have on minority achievement, though a large body of research suggests it certainly won't help efforts to improve test scores, graduation rates, and college entry levels for blacks and Hispanics, a growing share of the U.S. population. But the retreat from desegregation also suggests the policy had significant flaws--problems current education reformers should pay attention to.

The hope behind desegregation was that it would bring together white and black children to learn with, and from, each other, and end the disparities that blacks suffered under legal segregation -hand-me-down textbooks, decrepit buildings, lower-paid teachers, and, of course, lagging achievement. In the three decades following Brown v. Board of Education, courts ordered districts to create elaborate student assignment plans--often dependent on forced busing--to mix black, Hispanic, and white students together in the same schools. Most school boards complied reluctantly, and parents in places like Boston reacted violently.

A few educators and parents began to see substantial benefits that changed their minds. "It was really hard to do, but we all came together and over the years it has paid off," said Carol Haddad, a long-time school board member in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the few districts that has maintained desegregated schools voluntarily despite the lifting of its court order. "We can give equal opportunities to all kids."

Indeed, during the height of desegregation in the 1970s and 80s, the achievement gap between black and white students narrowed at the most rapid rate ever recorded in the history of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the most reliable, long-term measure of student achievement in the U.S. Black graduation rates also rose at desegregated schools, research has found. War on Poverty programs and other efforts to improve life for black families were one factor. "There was a lot going on," said Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist and the study's lead author. "But clearly desegregation improved outcomes for blacks, and didn't harm them for whites."

Nevertheless, in most communities forced to try desegregation, the sacrifices weren't worth the benefits. Parents of all races complained about the hassle of busing and the loss of neighborhood schools, but for black families the burdens were often heavier: Their children tended to spend more time commuting, their own schools were closed to make desegregation more convenient for whites (and prevent their flight to the suburbs or private schools), and their teachers were fired when white and black schools were merged.

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Sarah Garland is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the forthcoming book Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation.

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