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Study: Mass. Schools Are More Racially Diverse — And More 'Intensely' Segregated

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As public schools across Massachusetts open, a new report paints a stark picture of racial integration in schools. 

It says the number of predominantly white schools has decreased as they've become more racially diverse.

And in an apparent contradiction, the number of intensely segregated schools, in which 90% or more of the students are either white or students of color, has increased.

Dr. Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at UMass Lowell and co-author of the study.

Jack Schneider, study co-author: This obviously gives us real reason to worry here — not because Black students attending school with Black students or Latinx students attending school with Latinx students is problematic — but because there's a long-standing connection between white students and greater access to resources, as well as because of what Thurgood Marshall said nearly 50 years ago, when he said that if we want our people to live together, they've got to go to school together. You can't have the one without the other.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: You mentioned that the way that the state measures accountability, like standardized testing, such as the MCAS, is creating a bigger problem. How so?

Well, these standardized test scores, which are used to determine accountability rankings, generally tell us where the poorest kids live, and where kids of color live, and where kids whose parents didn't graduate from high school or attend college live.

That, to me, does not indicate a system that is telling us about school quality. It's a system that's telling us about demography. And that's really unfortunate, because what happens is that many people look to that system for guidance about where to send their kids to school.

And really, the system is driving them away from schools with larger populations of students of color, low-income kids, and kids whose parents have less educational attainment — even though those kids are absolutely just as capable and, in many cases, their schools are just as good or better than the schools that people end up choosing as a result.

So what does the study recommend?

We've got several recommendations.

One of them is to try to balance every school to reflect the demography of the district as a whole.

Another approach is to build on this model of voluntary integration, where people opt into a program that would create relationships between urban schools with their larger populations of students of color and suburban schools with their larger populations of white students.

Why is it important to have a racially diverse school?

For a lot of reasons. If you ask communities of color, they will often say that they want their kids to go to racially diverse schools because their kids have so often been kept out of those schools on the grounds that they are less valuable in our society.

Many parents simply want the dignity of their children affirmed. And I think that matters a lot.

There's also a large body of research demonstrating that schools that are racially diverse or predominantly white tend to have more resources than schools where we see large concentrations of students of color in isolation.

And then finally, I think it really matters because when young people grow up together, they're more likely to see each other as human beings, to understand each other, to understand each other's perspectives. And I think in this moment that we're faced with right now in 2020, as we're looking around and seeing racial strife all across our society, inequity as an issue that we continue to talk about again and again — racial inequity, that sending our kids to school together is one of the long-term investments we can make in solving that problem.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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