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Kansas University Professor Measures the Impact of Desegregation

During a recent session at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting, Dr. Argun Saatcioglu, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy and an adjunct assistant professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, asserted that desegregation increased schools’ contribution to minority success.

Since school desegregation in most states produced only modest academic gains for minority students, desegregation, to a large extent, has been outlawed as a type of educational reform. But, Saatcioglu argues that there is hidden value in integrated schools.

In a recent study, Saatcioglu examined the impact segregated, desegregated and resegregated schools in Cleveland had on Black and White students over a 30-year period. He suggests that while desegregation did little to improve students’ performance in terms of test scores and graduation rates, it was able to increase the impact that the schools made in the lives of the children.

According to Saatcioglu’s report, “The Hidden Value of School Desegregation,” desegregated schools didn’t fail students; they empowered them, to a large extent. Unfortunately, test scores remained low because of social and economic impediments outside the school, the report says.

“I can be disadvantaged. I can go to a great school. Now, my performance may change only a little. But that doesn’t mean that the school didn’t do its job,” says Saatcioglu. “When the average [inner city] kid leaves the school, you send the kid back to a pretty rough environment … out of the scope of the school.”

In 2007, a 5-4 decision authored by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts told local schools in Seattle that they could not take even modest steps to overcome residential segregation and ensure that schools remain racially mixed unless they could prove that such classifications are narrowly tailored to achieve specific educational benefits.

Saatcioglu asserts that there is a danger in mistaking successful policies for failures, and making the wrong policy choices. “So long as we refuse to include significant remedies to non-school problems in our efforts to improve urban education and to close the achievement gap, we should examine school contribution in addition to student performance as a legitimate criterion for policy outcomes,” he says.

By evaluating the school’s contribution to the student performance in isolation, data from the Cleveland Municipal School District suggests that during the 1980s when the district desegregated, its high schools effectively counteracted dropout tendencies for minority students, particularly when students began high school having attended desegregated elementary and middle schools.

Saatcioglu also notes that during the period of desegregation, social factors like poverty, race and family became non-factors. “Minority concentration, poverty concentration and the concentration of single- or no-parent families negatively affected minority students. Hence the substantial increase in the promoting power of the average high school for minorities in the late 1980s,” Saatcioglu writes.

In contrast, during the period of segregation and resegregation, high schools functioned as a major obstacle to success, severely hurting the average student’s chances of graduation.

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