Preschool Segregation, part 2: “Segregation at an Early Age” 2019 update

I’m thrilled to announce the release of “Segregation at an Early Age – the 2019 Update,” co-written with Erica Frankenberg and published by Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights. In part 1 of this post, I summarized three very recent studies of preschool segregation, part of a flurry of activity on this topic. This post highlights key arguments, findings, and recommendations from the 2019 update to our October 2016 report on preschool segregation. As always, please use comments or twitter to let us know if you have any questions or feedback. 

An important note: This report uses 2015-16 data from the Civil Right Data Collection (CRDC) database, which includes public preschool enrollment disaggregated according to race. The Trump Admin, however, has proposed to end exactly this kind of data collection, as part of a broader plan to eliminate aspects of the CRDC that are central to civil rights advocacy in PK-12 schools. (For more info on this read this statement from the Learning Policy Institute.) So, while CECR hopes to produce regular updates on preschool segregation, changes to the CRDC would make it impossible to track the same trends in the same way. And, that’s actually a decent segue into the report itself. 

Overall Framing

  • Racial divisiveness is dominating everything from American politics to climate/culture in public K-12 schools, to everyday life. An effective response must consider the early education time period, when children are developing the social awareness, interpersonal empathy, and racial understanding that will shape how they see the world as adults.

Written by Andrew Grant-Thomas of EmbraceRace, the forward to the report makes the argument for preschool diversity in light of recent national events, including the racially-motivated shooting last summer in El Paso. It offers a call to action that guides the report, asking if we “have the will to make our preschools the laboratories of healthy, inclusive multiracial democracy they could be.”

As someone who often skips the forwards, I highly recommend reading this one. And, if you’re not familiar with them, I also recommend checking out EmbraceRace, which provides tools (e.g., tip sheets and book lists) to nurture healthy racial awareness among young people. They also host a monthly webinar series that has addressed topics like parent incarceration, pushing back against white nationalism, and – especially relevant this time of year – finding culturally appropriate books about American Indians

The early sections of the report then build on this argument with a discussion of research on the importance of racial integration in preschool and an overview of the current political context. A few key arguments:

Key Finding 1: Racial segregation in public preschool remains troublingly high, despite a small decrease since our October 2016 report.

For this finding and the one that follows, we make the overall argument using two different measures of segregation: isolation, or the racial composition of schools attended by the average student from each of the racial sub-groups reported in the CRDC; and concentration, or the percentage of students in schools that are either 90-100% white or 90-100% students of color. 

The graph below presents results for the racial isolation measure. Each sub-group has its own color on the graph- blue for white students, orange for Black students, etc- a larger part of that color for each particular group means more racial isolation. Look, for example, at the size of the blue bar for white students. A few takeaways from the report:

  • “White preschool students have the highest racial isolation of any group. Specifically, in 2015–16, white preschool students, on average, attended a school that has roughly 67% students of the same racial background and only about 33% students of color.” White students were also the most racially isolated group in our Oct 2016 report (which used 2013-14 data).
  • “The racial isolation of black students declined to 52.6% in 2015–16 from 55% in 2013–14.” Another way of thinking about it: if you listed the racial composition of the school attended by each black student and then took the average of that list, it would equal 52.6% Black.  
  • “The racial isolation of Hispanic students declined to 59.3% from 2013-14.” (In the report, we use the racial categories/labels from the CRDC.)

Racial Composition of Schools Attended by the Average Student of Each Race, 2015–16

Source: CRDC, 2015–16; Note: NHPI stands for Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander ; figures for students of other races available from authors.

There were also troubling findings in the concentration data:

  • In the aggregate, nearly 35% of preschoolers enrolled in public schools attended highly segregated schools of either variety (i.e., 90-100% white or 90-100% students of color). That’s a total of 548,000 children. 
  • Black and Latinx students attend highly segregated preschools at a much higher rate than students from any other racial subgroup. Nearly half of all Latinx (49.1%) and Black (47.7%) students are enrolled in preschools that are 90-100% students of color. 
  • By comparison, 19.8% of white students attend schools that are 90-100% white. 

Key Finding 2: In addition to segregation of white students from Black and Latinx students, we find evidence of an additional form of segregation that is often overlooked: segregation of Black and Latinx children from each other. 

When presenting findings on racial isolation, we identified troubling state-level trends in black and Latinx students’ isolation from each other:

  • “There were no states in which the average Hispanic student attended a school where most of the students were black students. Similarly, black preschoolers, on average, attended a school with a majority of Hispanic students in only two states (California and New Mexico).”
  • “In 37 states, black students, on average, attended a school with less than 25% Hispanic students.
  • “In 43 states, Hispanic students, on average, attended a school with less than 25% black students.”

We also found similar results when looking at trends in racial concentration. For this part of the report, we looked more closely at the “student of color” group to understand trends in schools that are specifically 90-100% black and 90-100% Hispanic. See the table below for more info. 

  • About 17% of black preschool students (approx 50,000 children) attend schools that are 90–100% black.
  • Nearly 20% of Hispanic preschool students (approx 91,000 children) attend schools that are 90-100% Hispanic.

Number and percentage of preschool students attending schools with 90–100% of same-race students, 2015–16

 Number of studentsPercentage of same race students

Key Finding 3: Individual states can be quite segregated over and above their state level demography, suggesting room for improvement in state policy. 

We note state level trends throughout the report, and, in the appendix, we include detailed breakdowns for anyone who wants to look into their home state in more detail. In the interest of space, here’s a few that I found shocking (though perhaps not surprising):

  • In Pennsylvania, white preschool students, on average, attended a school with more than 77% white students but just 8% black students. By comparison, the overall preschool enrollment in Pennsylvania is 45% white students and 27% black students.
  • In Mississippi, black preschool students, on average, attended a school with about 17% white students but nearly 80% black students. By comparison, the overall preschool enrollment in Mississippi is 31% white students and 62% black students.


We have a lot of recommendations in the report. As described above, the problem is large and, even compared to K-12 segregation, there’s very little that we’ve actually done to try to address preschool segregation. So, as a result, there are a lot of different and largely untested potential future directions for policy. We organized our suggestions according to short-term improvements in the current preschool delivery system and long-term improvements that would make more dramatic changes to the system itself. Here’s a few of my favorites from each category:

Short-term recommendations

  • New preschool programs should be located at sites that serve students from diverse neighborhoods and/or expansion efforts should aim to leverage inter-district partnerships that promote integration.
  • Preschool quality standards should be written with explicit attention to racial inequity, including guidelines for student recruitment and enrollment practices. 
  • Early childhood professional organizations, like NAEYC, should redefine quality standards to include greater affirmation of the assets that students of color bring the early education context.

Long-term recommendations

  • We join the Century Foundation in arguing that preschool providers need more support in developing “blended” funding models that allow them to serve private-pay students alongside students who receive public support. 
  • Preschool expansion policies could target service providers likely to draw on an integrated constituency, such as large employers and major community-based organizations.
  • As in the Child Care for Working Families Act, the federal government should provide matching funds to state programs that meet a minimum threshold for racial integration. 

As we argue in the final pages of the report, we can all work towards change by talking more about the importance of preschool for a child’s racial awareness. Many people think that preschool-aged children are too young. They are not. Their amazing brains are capturing the many social messages they get from their environment. Without more proactive engagement from parents and teachers, there’s a risk that dominant messages about racial difference and social stereotype will be accepted as normal. 

For those who want to join a conversation about this, I’ve included some sample tweets below. As always, feel free to share any thoughts/reactions in comments or twitter.

Preschool segregation needs to be a bigger part of the conversation about preschool expansion. A new report from @psu_civilrights details troubling national trends & highlights important considerations for policymaking. #YoungLearners #ThurgoodWasRight [report link]

Nearly half of all Latinx & Black public pre-k students are enrolled in intensely segregated schools. A new @psu_civilrights report details troubling trends in the segregation of our youngest public school students & offers suggestions for future policy. [report link]

Preschool is a critical time period in the development of a child’s racial awareness. So, it’s particularly troubling that more than 1/2 million US children attend highly segregated preschools. A new @psu_civilrights details trends & offers solutions. [report link]

3 thoughts on “Preschool Segregation, part 2: “Segregation at an Early Age” 2019 update

  1. Pingback: New Research: School resegregation in Boston | School Diversity Notebook

  2. Pingback: New Research: Benefits for white students in integrated schools | School Diversity Notebook

  3. Pingback: With the potential for new federal funding for ECE, we need to critically analyze how current funding policies have built on decades of discrimination | School Diversity Notebook

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