New Research: Literacy outcomes in segregated schools

I’m excited to feature new guest authors on the blog, with a new study that supports a fundamental pillar of school integration advocacy: segregated schools are bad for student learning. Specifically, the authors re-analyzed all studies, from the last 25 years, that compare English language arts/reading outcomes with school composition (race and SES). They went into each article, pulled out relevant data and then combined everything in a way that allowed them to re-analyze and develop their own, new conclusions. The full article – A Metaregression Analysis of the Effects of School Racial and Ethnic Composition on K–12 Reading, Language Arts, and English Outcomes – was published last month in a journal called Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.

The findings join a large research base, outlined in an earlier post, highlighting that:

  • Student academic learning outcomes are stronger in less segregated schools, and
  • Racial integration is NOT interchangeable with socio-economic integration. The authors note that each “are distinct features of the school’s structure in terms of their influence on reading scores.”

The post below offers a summary of key findings- there are details for parent activists/community organizers looking to bolster the case for racial integration as well as info for those in the academic community with interest in the theories and research methods that guided this study. I find the conclusions particularly compelling, not only because it reviews such a comprehensive amount of data, but also because it comes from a research team led by established/well-respected researchers who can speak directly to the ways that academic study can inform the public conversation.

Along those lines, one last note on a resource that readers might find useful: Not only have the researchers here contributed to what we know about school integration, they’ve also helped organize an easily searchable database of research on K-12 segregation/integration. I did quick searches for “school discipline” and for “attendance zones” and found interesting/useful stuff I had not read. You can filter results by keywords, research and analysis methods, and researcher. Hope you find it helpful!

Racial Segregation Matters for Literacy Outcomes, by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Martha Cecilia Bottia, Savannah Larimore

The Problem

The progress toward racial desegregation that commenced beginning in the 1960s has faltered since the late 1980s, and many of the gains have reversed. By several metrics, public schools throughout the nation are nearly as segregated as they were five decades ago.  Racial differences in achievement significantly narrowed during the decades when public schools were most desegregated, but as school systems resegregated, racial gaps in virtually every outcome widened again. If segregation contributes to the widening of gaps, pursuing desegregation may be worth the political costs. However, if segregation is not a factor in racially correlated outcomes, we may lament the immorality of segregated education but decide that pursuing diverse public schools may not be a useful strategy for narrowing gaps in performance.

It is essential that students learn to read by third grade because by the fourth grade they turn from learning to read to reading to learn other subjects. Our study investigates if school segregation is a driver of racial and class stratification dynamics in education or a manifestation of them. More precisely, does racial segregation influence literacy outcomes?  We approach our investigation of this problem by conducting a metaregression analysis of research about the relationship of students’ reading, English language, and literacy outcomes to the racial composition of the schools they attend. 

Literacy, Race/Ethnicity, and School Composition

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate literacy gaps appear early and continue through high school. White and Asian 4th graders score higher on average than Black, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaskan Native youth.  Social scientists and educational researchers investigating the mechanisms that underlie these differences demonstrate that individual student characteristics and family financial, cultural, and social capital resources all contribute to reading performance. Community resources that contribute to the acquisition of literacy include safety and crime levels, neighborhood SES, social networks, and cultural norms that embrace education. But non-school factors alone are insufficient to account for the racial differences in reading outcomes. School characteristics including teacher and administrator quality, material resources, curricula and instruction are central to the literacy process. Since the late 1980s, a preponderance of research has identified school racial composition as an organizational characteristic that also influences academic performance.

The general findings from the corpus of relevant research about reading achievement are that, after controlling for students’ individual characteristics, family background, teacher and principal quality, and various other school resources, a school’s racial composition has a relationship to the reading achievement of all students from kindergarten to high school (see all the sources cited at the top of pg 4 in the full article- there were too many to link here). The majority of these studies reports a negative relationship between higher percentages of disadvantaged minority youth and various measures of reading performance. Studies also report that the negative effects of concentrating Black or Latinx students in a school appear to have a stronger impact on disadvantaged minority students themselves. However, a smaller number of studies reports that racial composition is not significantly related to reading outcomes once the socioeconomic (SES) composition is taken into account (citations in the second paragraph on pg. 4).

We believe it is important to clarify the relationship between reading performance and school racial composition. We chose reading outcomes because of literacy’s pivotal role in other educational processes and outcomes. Specifically, our metaregression analysis sought to answer the following questions:

  • Does the corpus of social science research since the late 1980s indicate school racial composition is a significant predictor of reading achievement among K-12 students?
  • If it is, what is the direction and size of that effect? 
  • If there is an effect, is it the same for students who come from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and grade levels in school?

Conceptual Framework

Our examination of the relationship between school composition and racially-correlated differences in reading achievement was informed by two complementary theoretical frameworks.  Structural vulnerability theory proposes that inequitable educational outcomes emerge as the organizational features of schools interact with students’ individual and family characteristics. A school’s racial composition is one such organizational feature, along with ability grouping, tracking, and disciplinary processes. Students’ own race, gender, and social class background can mediate or moderate how these school structures enhance or constrain learning opportunities. Students from lower SES or underserved minority backgrounds are more vulnerable to poor quality schools because they are less likely to have family members with the resources (financial, cultural, human, or social capital) that can serve as a “safety net” to offset or compensate for the less effective educations received in racially segregated schools. Thus, students whose race or class makes them structurally vulnerable are even less likely to achieve in educational environments rendered inequitable by racial segregation.                                            

Cumulative advantage has long been recognized as a mechanism for generating inequality across any temporal process in which a favorable (or unfavorable) relative position contributes to the further production of relative (dis)advantage. Research on cumulative advantage/disadvantage (CA/CD) as an inequality generating process exists in sociological literatures about neighborhood effects, work and careers, health, and education.  The CA/CD framework proposes that an individual initially exposed to advantages (or disadvantages) will accumulate further (dis)advantages from continued exposure over time, magnifying small differences and making it difficult for individuals or groups that are ‘behind’ at one point in time to catch up. In the case of learning, small initial differences grow larger over time because progression from each step to the next depends on attainment of satisfactory performance in the previous step. This is clearly the case with literacy.

Research Design

Our study’s goal was to review and synthesize prior social science literature that investigated the relationship of school racial composition to reading achievement in order to answer our motivating questions. We conducted a multilevel metaregression analysis of findings from previous studies examining school racial composition and K-12 reading, language arts, and reading outcomes conducted during the last 25 years. Multilevel models control for the effects of the clustering of students within schools on the study’s outcomes. We focused on the last 25 years because prior to the late 1980s, much of the research on compositional effects suffered from issues that undermined the reliability and validity of findings. Our key outcome of interest, the dependent variable in all 30 studies, is measured by standardized assessments in the form of various school-administered tests of reading. Although reading outcomes are the product of numerous interacting individual, family, community, and classroom dynamics, we focus on one particular school structural characteristic—the racial and ethnic compositions of the schools —by holding constant student, family, and other school characteristics as well as features of the 30 studies themselves (i.e., the size and nature of the sample, the characteristics of the regression models themselves). The key independent variable, school racial composition, was operationalized as either percent Black, percent Latinx/Hispanic, percent minority, percent students of color, and so on.        

We searched the social science literature for studies disseminated since the late 1980s.  For a study to be included in the metaregression, it had to meet the following criteria:

  • It examined the relationship of school racial composition to reading achievement;
  • The dependent variable was a score measuring reading achievement either as a reading standardized ability estimate based on item response theory (IRT) scores, a reading scale score, a composite score that included reading achievement, or a composite measure of statewide standardized tests in reading;
  • Students in the study’s sample were enrolled in an elementary or secondary school;
  • Results were written in English;
  • The study’s author(s) used appropriate statistical tools given the nature of the research design and the structure of the data;
  • The key independent variable was measured as percent racial/ethnic minority not percent White;
  • The key dependent variable was not a gain score;
  • Findings were reported at the student-level rather than at the school-level;
  • The study provided descriptive statistics for all regression coefficients reported as findings, enabling us to standardize results across all studies. 

The final sample of 30 primary studies meeting these criteria had a total of 131 regression coefficients that we meta-analyzed.

Analytic Procedures

We began the construction of our metaregression dataset by identifying existing or creating standardized regression coefficients within the 30 qualified studies. Next, we transformed all standardized coefficients using the Fisher’s z transformation method to create a more normal distribution of effects for use in subsequent modeling and summarization. We examined the various independent variables employed across the primary studies for potential use as control variables in our metaregression analysis. We treated the primary studies’ regression model’s characteristics as Level I predictors (including controls for family income, school SES, multilevel modeling, sample includes students from all races).  The characteristics of the primary studies’ research designs served as Level II predictors in our meta-regression analysis (including cross-sectional dependent variable, national-level data, sample includes high school students, continuous independent variable, study was published).


Results indicate a small negative statistically significant relationship between the percent of a school’s disadvantaged minority enrollment (Black, Latinx, and Native American students) and the mean reading achievement of the students who attend it. Although the magnitude of the minority enrollment effect is not large in absolute terms (-0.067), it is far from trivial in substantive terms. The results also indicate that a school’s racial composition is not the same as its SES composition; the two organizational characteristics are distinct features of the school’s structure in terms of their influence on reading scores. We found the negative relationship of segregated schooling to reading achievement is stronger for Blacks and high school students. The finding that Black students experience a stronger negative effect than other youth is consistent with structural vulnerability theory, while the finding that high school students experience stronger effects than youth in earlier grades is consistent with cumulative disadvantage theory.  Once we acknowledge that standardized test scores are used for evaluating school and teacher quality, student track placement, grades, promotion and other important matters whose effects cumulate over the years, we can begin to appreciate how the effects of school segregation manifested in test scores cast a long shadow on educational outcomes. 


The challenges presented by resegregating schools and racially-correlated academic performance must be considered in conjunction with striking transformations in the demography of America’s communities and their schools. Today, both are more ethnically and racially diverse and socioeconomically stratified than five decades ago. Student populations have increasing numbers of immigrants as well, many of whom are English language learners.  Consequently, the proportions of the student population from more socially advantaged backgrounds who tend to score well in reading are shrinking relative to the proportions of students from less advantaged backgrounds who are less likely to perform well. Additionally, the spatial geography of school segregation has changed. Increasingly, families of color live in inner ring suburbs while some prosperous Whites are repopulating central cities.  These demographic shifts are fueled by the growth of income inequality and the emergence of school choice. Given residential segregation and the continuing practice of neighborhood-based assignment in public education, most pupils are likely to attend schools with others from similar racial and SES backgrounds.

At the same time, we should not ignore results of our study that are consistent with structural vulnerability and cumulative disadvantage theories.  Thirty-five years of research indicates school racial composition is a significant predictor of reading achievement among K-12 students even after controlling for student characteristics, family background, and other school factors including school SES composition; the greater the concentration of disadvantaged minority youth in a school, the larger the size of the negative effect of segregation on literacy outcomes of all students who attend them; and the negative effects segregation are likely to be greater for Blacks and students who attend high school.

School racial segregation appears to be both a driver and manifestation of racial stratification in education. It contributes to effectively reproducing the educational disadvantages that racially differentiated reading performance reflects. Given literacy’s centrality to all learning, this nation is unlikely to narrow economic and political inequality, break the intergenerational perpetuation of racism and fear, to prepare youth for citizenship in a democratic and just multiracial/ethnic society, or to equip every child to fully participate in a globalizing high tech economy if we do not again consider the racial composition of the public schools we provide for our children.

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