Background/Context: Past studies have consistently found modest academic gains for minorities as a result of desegregation. In addition, school effects have tended to be small or even null once student-level nonschool factors are controlled. However, traditional approaches not only treat desegregation as a policy that may be sufficient by itself to improve student performance, but also involve analytical techniques that may mask the beneficial effects of desegregated schools. In reality, student performance is affected by both school and nonschool factors, and the latter is often more influential than the former. Therefore, there is a need to reframe the approach to evaluating desegregation’s academic outcomes. Conceptually, modest gains need not be viewed as a sign of either success or failure. Instead, the outcomes can be judged in light of the inherent limitations characteristic of any reform intended to close the achievement gap, limitations associated with enduring nonschool problems that undermine student performance. Empirically, multilevel analytical procedures can disentangle school- and student-level effects of desegregation to help determine whether the policy can improve the schools, despite limited gains in eventual student performance.
Purpose: This article illustrates the proposed conceptual and empirical approach to desegregation evaluation by focusing on the dropout problem in urban high schools. The principal objective is to estimate the difference that desegregation makes in the effects of high schools on the dropout tendencies of predominantly poor minorities, net of student-level effects, many of which originate from outside the schools.
Research Design: The analysis draws on data from the Cleveland Municipal School District, 1977–1998. Specifically, data on four cohorts were available. The first cohort attended segregated schools until late in high school. The second one gradually desegregated in middle school and attended fully integrated high schools. The third one attended integrated schools from 1st through 12th grade. The fourth cohort attended integrated elementary and middle schools, followed by gradual resegregation in high school. Thus, the analysis estimates the effects of segregated, desegregated, and resegregated high schools while controlling for different degrees of exposure to desegregation prior to high school.
Findings: Minority (Black and Hispanic) dropout rates changed slightly, and only for the second cohort. Student-level nonschool problems, such as poverty, family disruption, and neighborhood disadvantage, had worsening effects over time, which likely countered some of desegregation’s benefits. Yet, desegregation made a considerable difference in the way that high schools aggravated the dropout problem. Much of the difference was explained by key compositional changes such as reductions in minority, poverty, and nontraditional family concentration in the schools for minorities. Resegregation reversed those benefits. The results provide no evidence of White harm. Instead, Whites appear to have benefited from desegregated schools in ways similar to how minorities benefited, although to a lesser extent.
Conclusions: It is fairer to evaluate desegregation in light of its inherent limits. The policy may benefit students in terms of school effects but still fail to reverse eventual performance problems such as dropouts, which are subject to many forces that the schools can do little about. The results suggest that in the absence of equitable “educational” policies, such as desegregation, unequal schooling conditions and outcomes for urban minorities may be further exacerbated.