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September 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 1

Reversing Segregation: How School Leaders Can Help

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Most education leaders realize that America’s schools are deeply segregated and unequal. Many believe, however, that changing this situation is beyond their ability. School segregation has become so entrenched in our society that many leaders take it as an unfortunate fact of life. Instead of tackling segregation, leaders create remedial policies they promise will work to end racial inequality—which rarely do.
There are steps educational leaders can take to combat segregation, however. As we begin this “post-pandemic” era, the time has come to take those steps.
Serious progress in desegregating U.S. schools was made between 1965 and 1978—but then, sadly, opposing political forces captured the courts, which mostly dismantled those desegregation efforts. Under No Child Left Behind (2001–2015), school leaders were pressured to close achievement gaps by raising standardized test scores. Though segregated schools scored poorly, desegregation policy was ignored. Today, NCLB has been abandoned, and schools are more segregated by race and poverty than at the beginning of the century. This reality is extremely harmful to students, including white students who tend to become better educated and prepared for life in our increasingly diverse society when they attend racially diverse schools.
Resegregation has been going on for decades. Once just an inner-city problem, it now affects vast swaths of suburbia, as the school population in the suburbs of large metropolitan areas has become more than half nonwhite because of rapidly changing demographics (today more than 50 percent of the nation’s K–12 students are children of color, according to a U.S. Department of Education 2020 report). Much resegregation is related to various forms of housing discrimination and exclusion and to the effect of school district boundaries. Some segregation now is from choice plans that foster white flight or exclude students of color through testing. Without a plan to stop it, resegregation will continue on its destructive path.

A New Push for Integration

2020 was a turning point in U.S. race relations, with the largest racial justice demonstrations in U.S. history and a revival of the long-stalled movement for integrating schools. Last year, Congress lifted a ban on using federal funds for transportation of students for desegregation efforts. The U.S. House of Representatives also passed the Strength in Diversity Act, which would give districts dollars to fund integration efforts. The Biden Administration supports the law but no action has been taken in the Senate yet. Recent poll data shows that 57 percent of Americans see segregation as a serious problem, and a Gallup Poll showed 79 percent of Americans support the expansion of integrated magnet schools (McCarthy, 2019). State-level desegregation cases were settled for the first time in decades, and high school students organized protests calling for integrated schools in New York. Not much has changed on the ground yet, but interest is rising.

Why School Integration Is Crucial

Research underlines why it’s essential for the education community to get behind these efforts. Education leaders need to understand that school diversity isn’t just a civil rights issue—it also leads to better education for all children. Children learn more in diverse settings. Opponents of desegregation spur fear in white parents that their children might lose ground academically, but 50 years of research shows no significant loss in terms of test scores for white students. It does, however, show real gains for these students in terms of preparation to live and work in the interracial settings that will characterize the future. And recent research using large data sets in which researchers followed students through school and into their later lives showed that school integration significantly increases college and job success for students of color and is even related to improvements in health (Ayscue, Frankenberg, & Siegel-Hawley, 2017; Johnson, 2019; Reardon, 2016; Rucker, 2019).
Desegregation is one of those win-win situations uncommon in social policy. White students lose nothing, children of color gain significantly, and both become better prepared for a diversifying society.
Segregation, conversely, weakens educational experiences, particularly for minorities. Brown v Board of Education established nearly 70 years ago that segregated schools are inherently unequal. Most affluent white and Asian students attend schools where the parents are college graduates, teachers are experienced, and administrators have excellent reputations and tend to remain in these schools. The children’s families have resources and experiences uncommon in other parts of town, and everyone assumes all students should be prepared for college. Black and Latino children, by contrast, are usually concentrated in schools where the parents have less resources and education and where teachers tend to have little experience and frequently transfer out of the school. Most of the students in these schools are poor; many are children of immigrant families who don’t speak English at home. This great educational divide produces inequality by race, poverty, and language background.
In schools serving mostly students of color, there are more kids who struggle in school, so teachers have to devote extra energy to catching them up. Differences in school experiences and reputations are well known. Teachers transfer systematically to middle class, largely white schools, where it’s simply easier to teach.
Segregation, in short, leads to a destructive system, one that gives the least to the students who rely on school most—and one that develops children unequally. The enormous educational differences that faced families and schools during the pandemic only underline the inequities we know have existed all along.

Actions School Leaders Can Take

What can we do to reverse the trend toward resegregation? Researchers at the Civil Rights Project—an initiative house at the University of California-Los Angeles that I cofounded and co-direct—are beginning to identify key steps. The project’s mission is to support research in social science and law on issues of civil rights and equal opportunity. From its founding, our research has focused on equalizing educational opportunity, examining the consequences of segregated education and efforts to reduce segregation in our schools and colleges. As the project celebrates 25 years, we’re launching a major effort to illuminate the central race-related challenges of the next quarter century as the nation continues to undergo radical demographic change. This includes mobilizing the best researchers to explain the trends, outline the racial challenges they foresee over the next 25 years, and offer ideas for the most hopeful solutions.
Initial research indicates that in this era, efforts toward integration won’t be mainly about bringing Black students into white schools, but about figuring out how to create and operate strong, diverse public schools in an extremely multiracial and stratified country. The approach being discussed now isn’t about mandatory reassignment of students (mandatory busing hasn’t been the basic method of desegregation for four decades), but about managing choice-driven systems to produce diversity in schools. School choice is expanding, but unrestricted choice fosters inequality because of differential information and resources, lack of transportation, and weak selection mechanisms. The challenge now is for school districts to help create communities with lasting diversity, not just the destructive transitions of suburban resegregation or urban gentrification that don’t lead to diverse schools.

Today, schools are more segregated by race and poverty than at the beginning of the century.

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Channeling the choice system so that it fosters lasting diversity requires a plan involving training, resources, and monitoring. Educators and education policy makers at all levels will need to contribute. Here are some actions we can take.
Support Key Federal Educational Policy. Senate passage of the House-passed Strength in Diversity Act would provide key resources for local initiatives toward integrating schools. Support from educators is a key to this bill’s fate. Should it pass, educators should encourage their community to develop such initiatives. For one model, they could look to initiatives like San Antonio, Texas, a central-city district that has created excellent schools that draw diverse enrollments from across the metro area. Education leaders should also be alert to federal guidance that will be rolled out, clarifying for district leaders the range of actions and diversity policies that will be permitted under the law.
In addition, educators need for U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona—who has experience with extensive desegregation efforts in Connecticut—to highlight his positive Connecticut experience and provide leadership and resources to help on integrating schools.
Leverage Magnet Schools. The most popular step toward integration, supported by majorities of Blacks, Latinos, and whites, is the expansion of magnet schools.1 Though many successful magnets that combined unique programs with recruitment and selection methods assuring diversity were created during the l970s, in l981, the Reagan Administration ended the federal program supporting voluntary local efforts that had funded the creation of many integrated magnets. Money was poured instead into charter schools, which usually lacked the racial equity provisions of magnets. Charters became competitors to public school districts, rather than assets.
But magnet schools can be a powerful strategy in boosting integration. To have genuinely “magnetic” programs that appeal to all groups, local educational leadership must be sensitive to the needs and desires of the various groups in the school district’s population. For a magnet school to open successfully and remain integrated, a broad strategy, including targeted recruitment and transportation, must be in place. In recent years, there’s been limited funding and no serious integration requirements for magnets—but skilled leaders know how to deploy resources to create good programs.
The federal magnet aid program should be greatly expanded—and I believe increased funds for magnets are coming. It will then be up to creative local educators to design compelling educational options, choose and train leaders and faculties who can deliver them, and use recruitment and choice policies that foster integration. I’ve seen districts do this successfully. For instance, regional magnets offering opportunities for clusters of school districts have had real success in Connecticut.
Federal policies around magnets also need to be strengthened. The Civil Rights Project studied the federal magnet school program and concluded that its current standards weren’t effective in producing significant gains in racial diversity (Ayscue, Levy, Siegel-Hawley, & Woodward, 2017). After court orders were dropped, many magnets were converted into “exam schools” without civil rights goals, shrinking opportunities for students of color. With federal and local cooperation, however, districts could develop successful magnet schools that would attract parents and reduce segregation, becoming pillars of school districts.
One inviting strategy is the expansion of the popular two-way dual immersion schools, which turn a second language from a problem into an asset and help monolingual English-speaking students learn with native speakers. In a diverse country with a globalized economy, these are remarkable opportunities. We need many more of these schools to serve the needs of English learners and students who choose to learn a second language. Good magnets, and good diverse schools of any type, will also require integrated staffs. Dual immersion schools will require the preparation and recruitment of more bilingual teachers.

Education leaders need to understand that school diversity isn’t just a civil rights issue—it also leads to better education.

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Collaborate with Other Sectors. Another promising possibility is for school systems to collaborate with municipal government and housing agencies. School and municipal leaders, for example, can bring together a task force—including fair housing groups, officials focused on subsidized housing, and realtors—to work against residential steering of whites away from diverse communities, foster school-realtor collaboration in welcoming potential residents, and avoid displacement of long-term residents of color as gentrification occurs. Diversity is more likely to be lasting if the housing market continues to bring in diverse families and if the schools connect successfully with many kinds of families and children. The school system should have training strategies to effectively serve both whites and students of color in diverse schools. Training realtors about the positive aspects of local schools and strengthening enforcement against those showing whites only areas with white schools and vice versa can be critical.
This is another reason to support the Strength in Diversity legislation. Thousands of U.S. communities, many in the suburbs, are now becoming more diverse, and this law would provide funds for training staff in terms of making plans for positive relationships in the schools and for working to support long-term diversity rather than sliding into resegregation. The fact that President Biden chose Rep. Marcia Fudge, the House sponsor of the Strength in Diversity Act, as the Secretary of HUD creates a unique possibility of real collaboration between housing, education, and civil rights policies.
State education officials can play powerful roles in supporting school integration, since many states, through their laws and constitutions, act to support integration efforts. States also have power under the Every Student Succeeds Acts to develop criteria of their own for using federal funds and accountability. State officials should recognize diversity as an important element to be included and evaluated in local and regional reform plans.
Since research shows that a diverse faculty brings clear benefits in schools with diverse student populations, state officials should strongly encourage and monitor the efforts of teacher training institutions and districts to increase faculty diversity. And they must ensure that all pre-service teachers learn research-based methods to improve both race relations within schools and achievement for all student groups.

A Powerful Role

Many educators are troubled by resegregation and the bitter racial divisions among adults in our public life. The good news is that educational leaders can play a powerful role in reversing resegregation and preparing the next generation for a more harmonious and equitable diverse society.

Desegregation and Resegregation: A Bit of History

Major desegregation of U.S. schools was accomplished in the l960s and early 1970s in the South and some big cities. By the 1980s, years of opposition by conservative governments and judicial appointments that moved the Supreme Court to the right had limited desegregation in metro areas and “protected” white suburbs. In the l991 Oklahoma City case, the Supreme Court decided that desegregation plans had done enough and should be terminated by federal courts (Orfield & Eaton, 1996).

Since that time, resegregation of Black students has steadily intensified, losing progress made since the late l960s. In 1968, only 19 percent of Black students in the South, where most desegregation efforts were focused, were in majority white schools. At the peak of desegregation efforts, it was 45 percent, but by 2018, it was back down to 18 percent. The percent who were in intensely segregated Southern schools fell from 78 percent in 1968 to 23 percent in the l980—but is now up to 37 percent. A Civil Rights Project report shows that Black students’ contact with white and middle-class students has dropped sharply.<2>

The rights of Latino students to desegregated education were not recognized by the Supreme Court until 1973—and never seriously enforced. Those students are now as segregated as Black students.


Ayscue, J., Frankenberg, E., & Siegel-Hawley, G. (2017). The complementary benefits of racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools. Washington, D.C.: The National Coalition on School Diversity.

Ayscue, J., Levy, R., Siegel-Hawley, G., & Woodward, B. (June 2017). Choices worth making: Creating, sustaining and expanding diverse magnet schools. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Civil Rights Project.

Johnson, R. C. (2019). Children of the dream: Why school integration works. New York: Basic Books and Russel Sage Foundation.

McCarthy, J. (2019, September 17). “Most Americans say segregation in schools a serious problem.” Gallup Poll, p. 4.

Orfield, G., & Eaton, S. (1996). Dismantling desegregation: The quiet reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.

Orfield, G., & Jarvie, D. (2020). Black segregation matters. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Civil Rights Project.

Rucker, J. C. (2019). Children of the dream: Why school integration works. New York: Basic Books.

Reardon, S. F. (2016). School segregation and racial academic achievement gaps. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2(5) 34–57.

U.S. Department of Education. (2020). National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey, 2018–19. See Digest of Education Statistics 2020, table 216.50

End Notes

1A magnet school is a school within a district public school system that offers a specialized curriculum or focus and is designed to attract a more diverse student body.

2Computations for the percentages in this paragraph were done by Gary Orfield and Danielle Jarvie, using NCES Common Core of Data and OCR data before l980 (Orfield & Jarvie, 2020).

Gary Orfield is a professor of Education, Law, and Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles, author of many books, and codirector of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

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