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Achievement Gaps
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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Explanations

    1. School Factors

      1. Racial Segregation in Schools

Is There a Relationship between School Segregation and the Achievement Gap?

Scholar Gary Orfield reports that American schools have become more racially and ethnically segregated since the late 1980s. He also notes that this resegregation coincided with a stagnation in the decrease of the achievement gap between white and non-white, non-Asian students.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Orfield, G. (2001).Schools more separate: Consequences of a decade of resegregation. Retrieved August 2, 2002, from Harvard University, The Civil Rights Project Web site: research/deseg/separate_schools01.php

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Is there a relationship between school segregation and the achievement gap? Scholar Gary Orfield believes that there is. He brings to bear three pieces of evidence suggesting there is a relationship between school segregation and the achievement gap:

  1. a coincidence of resegregation and achievement gap trends
  2. evidence that indicates that segregated minority schools generally provide inferior education
  3. research that suggests that desegregation raises some students' test scores

A Coincidence of Trends

The first piece of evidence that Orfield points to that indicates that segregation trends and achievement gap trends may be related is the coincidence of timing. Both trends in segregation and trends in the achievement gap changed at about the same time.

Figure 1superposes the changes in the trends in percent of black students in majority white schools in the U.S. South on top of the trends in the black-white gap in reading test scores. What is startling, says Orfield, is that both segregation and achievement-gap trends changed directions during the mid- to late-1980s after the Reagan Administration had begun its systematic efforts to dismantle federal desegregation policies and efforts.

Figure 1. Trends in Percent of Black Students in Majority White Schools in the U.S. South and Reading Test Score Gap Trends between Black and White Students
Figure 1. Trends in Percent of Black Students in Majority White Schools in the U.S. South and Reading Test Score Gap Trends between Black and White Students

However, a coincidence of trends does not mean that one process caused the other. Additionally, the data in Figure 1 only indicate changes in segregation rates in the U.S. South, not the United States as a whole.

Orfield argues, however, that there is additional evidence to indicate that there may be some relationship between the segregation rate and the achievement gap rate. He also argues that because of strong efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to desegregate the U.S. South, schools in this area of the country were actually the most racially integrated during the 1980s. He also marshals evidence to demonstrate that the segregation trends in the South were part of a larger trend across the country.

Segregated Schools Do Not Provide Equal Education

Orfeld says that federal policy changed in the 1980s away from supporting desegregation efforts and toward providing compensatory funds for lower performing schools. That is, instead of busing children to different schools or districts in an effort to make schools more racially and economically diverse, government agencies began an effort to leave schools more segregated and started to spend more money on low-performing schools. Orfield says that, in effect, this amounted to a return to a "separate but equal" mentality.

In the U.S. Supreme Court's landmarkBrown v. Board of Educationdecision in 1954, the justices asserted that racially segregated schools were "inherently unequal." Orfield says that the reason for this inherent inequality comes from the fact that segregated minority schools are overwhelmingly likely to suffer from concentrated poverty. Segregated white schools are much more likely to be middle class. Orfield also points to research that indicates that there is a very strong correlation between the percent of poor students in a school and poor test scores. In short, racially segregated schools also tend to be economically segregated schools. In poorer schools (and schools with poorer students) children are less likely to receive the same quality education as in more affluent schools.

This conviction that segregation could not provide equal educational opportunities was behind the range of efforts during the civil rights era of the 1960s and early 1970s to make schools less segregated. And, as Figure 1 demonstrates, those efforts had dramatic success. However, beginning with the Nixon Administration in the early 1970s and gaining momentum with the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, the federal government's commitment to desegregated schools endedand even, Orfield argues, reversed.

Orfield says that theBrown v. Board of Educationdecision demonstrated that efforts before the 1950s to make segregated school equal was a dismal failure. Orfield goes on to say that the federal government's "separate but equal" approach, reinstated in the 1980s, has been an equal failure.

Research Suggests that Desegregation Raises Test Scores

Finally, Orfield points to direct research that demonstrates that desegregation has positive effects on children.

  • He says that studies show that desegregation improves test scores as well as changes the lives of students.
  • He says that research also indicates that desegregation benefits children in the long run in terms of college attendance, employment, and living in integrated communities as adults.

He also points out that teaching in an interracial setting is not as difficult as some might think. Orfield says that there are well-documented and relatively simple teaching methods that have proven effective for teaching in an interracial setting.

Is There a Link between Segregation and the Achievement Gap?

Orfield says that the timing of trends, the failure of "separate but equal" policies, and direct research on the benefits of desegregation all indicate that there is a link of some sort between segregation and the achievement gap. Do resegregation trends in U.S. schools explain the achievement gap? Orfield does not go quite this far. However these two trends are related, Orfield thinks one thing is clear: the United States will not be able to move to an equitable education system as long as school segregation is permitted.

Research Design:

Research Questions

How have segregation trends in U.S. schools changed over the past 40 years?

How is school segregation related to educational equity?

What are some effects of school segregation?

How has U.S. federal policy changed toward school segregation?

How is segregation in U.S. schools related to the changing trends in the achievement gap between white and non-white students?


Orfield draws on numerous educational data sets, including: the National Center for Educational Statistics Common Core of Data, U.S. Census data, U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, and the Southern Education Reporting Service.


Orfield combines statistical data on school enrollment trends to create a picture of desegregation and resegregation trends over the past forty years. In addition to data on schools, Orfield draws on U.S. Supreme court decisions and other governmental policy information to make the argument that the resegregation trends are the result of government indifference or hostility to desegregation efforts.


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