Research Review: The overwhelming yet overlooked benefits of racial integration

It’s been a busy week, so I just wanted to quickly revisit something form my “to read” list – A research summary about the benefits of racial and socio-economic integration that came out last March from the National Coalition on School Diversity.

If you’re looking for a good, short (10 pgs) summary of the research or if you want to create a reading list for yourself, this is a solid place to begin. (I’ve also tried to include links to as many of the original studies as I could find.) As we’ve known for a long time, there are many benefits to school integration. This report summarizes those more familiar findings, while highlighting two important/overlooked findings:

  • Racial and economic integration are beneficial for ALL students
  • Racial and economic integration are NOT interchangeable – they each have benefits, some of which overlap and some of which are unique.

Here’s the summary of racial integration benefits:

Some of the positive outcomes above were also found in schools that are economically integrated, especially the academic outcomes. Because race and SES are closely related, studies have had a hard time separating these out. That said, you can’t get the full benefit of positive intergroup relationships without contact with people of different races.

Recent studies have used more sophisticated statistical methods to separate the effects of socio-economic and racial integration. These have found that racial integration, specifically, is linked to: improved language acquisition in PreK and higher scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

So, is that it? We’re done? Let’s just spread the word about this and then everyone will be on board? As a researcher, I want to think that the research is that important/compelling, and, in some ways, it is. For one thing, all these studies look at real schools with real people in them, whose lives have measurably benefited from school integration. So, for them it matters. I think/hope it would matter for people who don’t follow this issue closely, but are nonetheless capable of approaching it with an open mind.  

It should also matter for court rulings about school integration. Since the late 70’s, the supreme court has limited the extent to which race can be considered in school integration plans. Research shows this to be misguided, offering a strong justification for considering race directly/explicitly, given that racial integration carries its own unique benefits (which has been recognized in Parents Involved, though this is not part of the common understanding of this case).

But, in what is supposedly the age of data, the data on school integration is almost completely overlooked. We have solid evidence of its benefits, and we have over a century of evidence that “separate but equal” is harmful. In everything from the policies that are made to the everyday conversations about school integration, this doesn’t seem to matter. Decisions to segregate are made in the gut or maybe (sadly) in the heart, but not in the head. It touches core beliefs and unexamined social assumptions that are wrapped up in fears of being labeled a bad person or a bad parent.

So, where does this leave us? I’m hoping/planning to devote my career to research on school (de)segregation, so I obviously think it’s important, and I think it can be powerful. But, how? Where does it fit into the larger public conversation about school/social segregation? What are the best venues for this? What types of questions should researchers be asking? Sometimes I feel as stumped by these questions as I am motivated to answer them.

Update: In response to the Harris/Biden exchange about school integration, Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat published this very helpful and thorough review of the literature on the benefits of school integration. 

19 thoughts on “Research Review: The overwhelming yet overlooked benefits of racial integration

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