"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

New Study Reveals School Racial and Economic Segregation

 NEW STUDY: First-Of-Its-Kind Analysis Reveals Widespread Racial, Economic Segregation In U.S. Schools, Ranks Most Segregated Cities

Six decades after Brown v. Board, segregation between Black and white students remains very severe in 10 percent of metro areas, significant in others

The most severely racially and economically segregated metro areas include New York City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Newark

(New York, NY) — More than six decades after Brown v. Board, many students across the country still attend schools that are heavily segregated, both racially and economically. A new, first-of-its-kind analysis, published today by The Century Foundation, provides a uniquely detailed look at the current state of school segregation across all U.S. metropolitan areas. The results are alarming: segregation is still persistent across the country and our biggest metropolitan areas see particularly high rates of segregation between Black and white students, and between those who are lower-income and more affluent. 

Accompanying the study is a new tool, produced in partnership with the Segregation Index, led by Ann Owens from the University of Southern California and Sean Reardon from Stanford University, that allows users to dig into just how severe segregation is in their area—and what causes are behind it. The School Segregation Data Dashboard, also published today, includes data from public and private schools in all 403 metropolitan areas across the country, presented in an interactive map that shows local segregation levels as well as larger trends across the country.

“While it’s no secret that many students still experience segregation within their schools, the severity of that segregation in many metropolitan areas is shocking, and should prompt policymakers to act,” said Halley Potter, TCF senior fellow and the study’s author. “Data is essential for addressing such a pervasive problem, and what we’ve learned from this new analysis is that segregation looks very different in New York than it does in California, and in every area in between. This level of data allows us not only to better understand the causes of segregation in certain areas, but also to determine how best to address it.”

TCF’s analysis measures segregation by race and ethnicity, as well as by income, using the variance ratio segregation index, which allows researchers to compare the difference between two groups of students in their exposure to students from one of the groups. For example, a variance ratio of zero for Black-white segregation means that every school in that area would have the exact same racial composition, and a measure of one means that Black and white students would be totally isolated. “Very severe” segregation exists, in terms of this study, in areas with variance ratios larger than 0.5, meaning they are closer to being entirely segregated than entirely integrated. 

Key findings from the study include:

National Trends

  • Metro areas have particularly high levels of segregation between Black and white students 

    • In 10 percent of all metro areas, Black-white segregation levels are “very severe” (variance ratios higher than 0.5), meaning schools are closer to being entirely segregated than to fully integrated

  • Segregation levels between white students and students of other races are less stark, but still significant across the country 

    • On average, the difference between the percentage of white students at the average white student’s school and at the average non-white student’s school in the same area is 21 percentage points

  • Economic segregation is also widespread, and students of color (Black students in particular) have higher average rates of poverty

    • The rate of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch is 16 percentage points higher at the average Black student’s school than the average white student’s school in the same metro area

  • School segregation is most extreme in the Northeast, where both racial and economic segregation are more pronounced

    • Segregation between school districts causes much of this regional segregation, and is the largest driver of segregation nationally 

Cities and Metro Areas with Most Severe Segregation

  • The New York City and Milwaukee metropolitan areas stand out as especially segregated 

    • The study includes six lists of the 10 most segregated areas across six types of segregation

    • New York City and Milwaukee appear in the ten most segregated areas on two-thirds of these lists 

  • Chicago, Newark, and Philadelphia also have high levels of segregation across many groups, appearing on half of the most segregated lists

    • Boston, Detroit, Oakland, and Los Angeles, among others, come in behind these cities, and rank among the top ten most segregated areas by several metrics

  • Segregation of different racial groups of students varies across the country

    • Detroit has the highest levels of segregation between white and all non-white students

    • Milwaukee has the highest levels of school segregation among Black and white students, while Philadelphia is most segregated between Hispanic and white students

    • California is home to the most segregated schools between White and Asian students (Napa) and white and American Indian students (El Centro)

    • The Newark area has the highest levels of economic segregation 

“These findings point to many different types, and severities, of segregation across our country, but they also reveal something essential for policymakers: much of our country’s segregation is driven by segregation between school districts,” said Ann Owens, associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and one of the leaders of the Segregation Index. “Solving this problem is particularly complex, as it will require conversations at all levels of government. Local leaders within a district have few tools to address segregation across district lines on their own—leadership to address interdistrict segregation must come from the state or federal level.”

While interdistrict segregation is the largest driver of segregation, and most prevalent in the Northeast and Midwest, other factors, such as segregation within districts and among private and charter schools, also contribute to segregation. The report and interactive map reveal the complex realities of segregation in U.S. schools, and should prompt policymakers at all levels of government to take action.


The Century Foundation (TCF) is a progressive, independent think tank that conducts research, develops solutions, and drives policy change to make people’s lives better. We pursue economic, racial, and gender equity in education, health care, and work, and promote U.S. foreign policy that fosters international cooperation, peace, and security. TCF is based in New York, with an office in Washington, D.C. Follow the organization on Twitter at @TCFdotorg and learn more at www.tcf.org.

McKenzie Maxson (she/her/hers)
Press Secretary
The Century Foundation
2000 M Street NW, 7th Floor, Washington DC 20036
C: 937.789.4606 @mckenziemmaxson

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