Report finds increase in 'intensely segregated' schools in Massachusetts

Stephanie Koons
October 27, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Integrated schools promote educational equality among white students and students of color, according to Peter Piazza, a former postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Education and Civil Rights (CECR) in the College of Education. However, in a recent report, his research team found that a growing number of Massachusetts schools serving students of color are “intensely segregated” — even as the state’s population has grown more diverse overall.

“Historically, educational opportunities and school funding in the U.S. follow white students,” said Piazza, program director for School Quality Measures at Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment. “If schools remain separate, they will be unequal. There’s never been separate but equal.”

The report, “School Integration in Massachusetts: Racial Diversity and State Accountability,” jointly released by CECR and the Beyond Test Scores Project at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, documents trends in the rise of intensely segregated schools serving students of color, as well as decreases in the share of racially diverse schools and intensely segregated white schools consistent with the increase in diversity across the state since 2008.

Piazza’s co-authors on the report are Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education, and Ashley Carey, a doctoral candidate, both at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell; and Rachel White, assistant professor of education at Old Dominion University.

Piazza began working on the report along with his co-authors while he was a post-doctoral scholar at CECR, which is a “hub for the generation of knowledge and coalition building within the education and civil rights communities to promote racial and ethnic equality in education.” CECR was co-founded by Erica Frankenberg, professor of education and demography in the Department of Education Policy Studies in the College of Education, and Liliana Garces, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin and an affiliate faculty at The University of Texas School of Law. Piazza remains connected to CECR through a blog he started called the School Diversity Notebook, where he writes regular posts about news events and recent research related to school integration.

In the report, the researchers state that Massachusetts, along with rest of the United States, is growing more diverse. Additionally, in the past decade, the number of highly segregated white schools — schools in which 90% or more of students are white — has declined. In 2008, about one-third of schools in the state had highly segregated white enrollments.

“That’s dropped by more than 70% in the last 12 years because diversity has reached out into the suburbs,” he said.

However, Piazza added, “None of that diversity is being steered in any intentional way, it’s just that communities that used to be overwhelmingly white are less so. And even at the same time that diversity is increasing, intensely segregated schools (serving students of color) are increasing.”

The researchers found that the number of intensely segregated schools (in which 90% or more of the student population are students of color) has increased from 143 in the 2008-09 school year to 192 in 2019-20. In addition, they discovered that nearly all of the increase in intensely segregated schools serving students of color has occurred outside of the state's three largest cities — Boston, Springfield and Worcester.

According to Piazza, previous research established a “70-25” benchmark for determining an ideal level of school diversity. Under that guideline, no more than 70% of a school’s enrollment is comprised of one race and at least 25% of the students are white. That conclusion is derived from research that shows that when more than 70% of a school’s students are from the same racial background, there aren’t adequate opportunities for students to form interracial friendships. Consequently, white students lose out on socioemotional learning opportunities to understand systemic racism.

“I don’t see a better way for white children to understand racism, to interrogate their own racial viewpoints, to learn about things like white privilege and white supremacy, than going to a school with a mix of people who come from different backgrounds,” Piazza said.

In addition to examining segregation trends in Massachusetts schools, the report also explores the relationship between school demographics and school ratings according to the state accountability system. Massachusetts schools are ranked according to a formula devised by the state government that relies heavily on student test scores.

“Because school ratings are so heavily based on test scores, they’re skewed by demographics because test scores are sort of like demographics in disguise,” Piazza said. “That system is going to pick up out-of-school factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the school, yet it’s going to stand for the quality of the school.”

According to Piazza, the researchers’ findings confirmed their hypothesis that the state accountability system disproportionately affects schools that serve students of color. Those schools face sanctions such as state intervention and the stigma of being identified as a low-performing school. Although intensely segregated schools serving students of color comprise 9% of all Massachusetts schools, they make up nearly 50% of the state's lowest-rated schools.

Conversely, intensely segregated schools serving students of color comprise only 2% of the state's highest-rated schools.

“If schools are stigmatized, families with means are going to avoid them,” he said. “It’s going to exacerbate the problem because schools are becoming places of concentrated poverty in addition to places of racial isolation.”

The report's recommendations, Frankenberg said, call for the Massachusetts state government to “encourage voluntary integration within and across districts as well as piloting forms of accountability that reflect school quality more than demographics.” This new work, she adds, contributes to research that CECR has published on the extent of school segregation preK-grade 12 and research and policy briefs with evidence-based solutions, such as voluntary integration.

Piazza said that he and colleagues would like to build on this research and continue to track segregation trends in Massachusetts. He added that some of the changes needed to promote greater integration in the state’s schools are within reach — out of nine districts that have intensely segregated schools, six have district-wide capacity to integrate.

“If they just even out those students a bit, they could have more integrated schools,” Piazza said. “It’s just something that requires political pressure.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021