Many US school districts are currently evaluating policies aimed at improving racial inclusion in public schools. This column describes research assessing the short- and long-term effects of school desegregation on the lives of majority and minority students. New research examining the impact of court-ordered desegregation plans — implemented in hundreds of U.S. school districts after 1960 — shows that early exposure to desegregated schools led to better academic and economic outcomes for children blacks in the US South, but that black children in the North showed little benefit from comparable integration initiatives.
Many US school districts exhibit high levels of racial segregation within their schools, prompting policy proposals to encourage equal racial representation of students in classrooms. Although these policies are frequently met with legal challenges and substantial rejection from the parents concerned, the extent to which students themselves benefit from better school integration remains a matter of debate. While some research questions the role of school resources in shaping student achievement (Hanushek 1986), other research points to disparities in school inputs as important factors in racial inequality in adulthood ( Card and Krueger 1992, Chetty et al 2014, Elango et al 2016, Card et al 2018) and suggests that attempts to reduce these disparities, including through integration, can increase economic mobility (Biasi 2019). At the same time, responses to these policies by non-minority students and parents aimed at avoiding integrated classrooms can contribute to segregation in American cities and hinder the effectiveness of the policies involved (Shertzer and Walsh 2016).
While a significant literature has examined statistical associations between levels of school segregation and student outcomes, these approaches are unable to determine whether the associations are causal or represent broader effects, such as school resources, that distinguish between schools with high or low levels of segregation. Several research papers estimated the effects of integration per se by focusing on court orders to desegregate schools that were unrelated to school resource levels. Following the landmark Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education in power in 1954, most major school districts in the United States were placed under orders requiring them to reduce the level of racial segregation in their schools. Guryan (2004) demonstrated with US Census data that these orders reduced the number of black high school dropouts, and Johnson (2011) used a small data set to suggest that these effects extended into adulthood. (see also Johnson 2019 for these findings in book form, as well as a broader discussion of school reforms that improve student outcomes).
Our research adds evidence to this debate by providing the most comprehensive national assessment to date of the long-term impacts of court-ordered desegregation on adult socioeconomic outcomes. We use large-scale and small-scale data on children’s long-term educational and economic outcomes from the 2000 Census and 2001-2015 waves of the American Community Survey and Social Security records, in conjunction with a set of hand-collected data on the times of desegregation orders. Our empirical approach complements other recent work, such as Bailey et al. (2021), who used similar data and found substantial long-term positive effects on human capital and economic self-sufficiency associated with the deployment of the Head Start program. To isolate the causal effect of prior exposure to school desegregation on adult outcomes, we compare children born into the same birth cohort in the same birth state, but in different birth counties, from so they were exposed to desegregation orders at different ages. We then compare these effects to children who were exposed to the orders at age 17, for whom we would not expect any change in results because they have already completed high school.
We present our main results in Figure 1, using proxies that summarize improvements in human capital (i.e., education) and economic autonomy (employment and earnings-related factors) . Results are presented separately for blacks and whites and for people born in and out of the South.
Figure 1 The long-term impacts of school desegregation on human capital (HC) and economic autonomy (ESS)
Figures 1a and 1b show that among Southern African Americans, indicated by red triangles, prior exposure to desegregation had large positive effects on human capital and economic self-sufficiency. Compared to exposure at age 17, being born five years before a desegregation order is associated with a 0.4 standard deviation increase in the human capital index and a 0.5 standard deviation increase in the economic autonomy index. The fact that the effects begin to show before the age of five likely reflects the court orders themselves often taking at least five years to fully implement. Notably, we detect no further decline or improvement in outcomes for African Americans over the age of 17 when exposed to the orders, which is reassuring given that individuals in this range had no differential exposure to orders as they had all already graduated. Since the index variables are potentially different to interpret, we also report the results for the individual variables that go into the indexed results. Compared to those exposed to desegregation at age 17, African Americans born five years before these ordinances experienced a 15 percentage point increase in the likelihood of graduating from high school, an increase 10 percentage points in the probability of employment, and a 30% increase in earnings. However, the effects on college completion and incarceration are insignificant. Additional analyzes indicate that the effects we find are quite homogeneous between men and women, but appear to be greater in counties with higher levels of pre-court order racial inequality.
The same numbers indicate that prior exposure to desegregation orders had no significant impact (either substantively or statistically) for white Southerners. However, Figures 1c and 1d present the results for northern counties: unlike the southern models, we observe no association between prior exposure to desegregation orders and improved adult outcomes for northern blacks. Although our data are limited in their ability to assess the mechanisms driving this finding, increasing baseline segregation rates in the South is a potential explanation. Additionally, families in the North may have responded to orders in ways that entrenched segregation on a de facto level rather than a de jure level (as was the case in the South), e.g. by migrating to suburban school districts or enrolling in schools. private schools.
Overall, while our results suggest that desegregation efforts in the South have been remarkably effective in improving black outcomes, the clear lack of effects outside the South strongly suggests that there are limits to the effectiveness of integration initiatives in certain contexts. This calls into question whether current or future interventions are likely to be effective when they do not constitute such transformative change to local education systems or when effective pathways to avoid integrated schools are available to white families.
Bailey, M, S Sun and B Timpe (2021), “The long-term impacts of Head Start on human capital and labor market outcomes”, VoxEU.org, 06 June.
Biasi, B (2019), “School funding equalization increases intergenerational mobility”, VoxEU.org, 24 April.
Card, D, C Domnisoru and L Taylor (2018), “Investing in public education to increase intergenerational mobility”, VoxEU.org, 6 October.
Card, D and A Krueger (1992), “School Quality and Black-White Relative Earnings: A Direct Assessment”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 107(1): 151–200.
Chetty, R, N Hendren, P Kline and E Saez (2014), “Where is the land of opportunity? Intergenerational mobility in the United States”, VoxEU.org, 04 February.
Elango, S, JL Garcia, J Heckman and A Hojman (2016), “Early Childhood Education and Social Mobility”, VoxEU.org, 12 January.
Guryan, J (2004), “Desegregation and Black Dropout Rates”, American Economic Review94(4): 919–943.
Hanushek, E (1986), “The economics of schooling: production and efficiency in public schools”, Economic Literature Review 24(3): 1141-1177.
Johnson, RC (2011), “Long-Run Impacts of School Desegregation and School Quality”, NBER Working Paper 16664.
Johnson, RC (2019), Children of the dream: why school integration works, Basic books.
Shertzer, A and R Walsh (2016), “Why American Cities Are Segregated by Race: New Evidence on the Role of ‘White Flight’”, VoxEU.org, 19 May.