First-grade reading falls short in segregated schools

"When similar groups of first graders do better in one type of school than another, then it must be some aspect of the school that accounts for the difference," says Kirsten Kainz. "This study goes further than any other in being able to say, 'It's not the kids.'" (Credit: Geoffrey Kehrig/Flickr)

African American first-graders make smaller gains in reading when they attend segregated schools—and researchers don’t think their backgrounds are causing the disparity.

According to the Center for Civil Rights, although the United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, segregation is still on the rise. To better understand segregation’s impact on student performance, scientists looked at nearly 4,000 first graders in public schools nationwide.

“When the minority composition of schools was 75 percent or more, the growth in African American first graders’ reading skills lagged behind their African-American peers in more integrated schools,” says Kirsten Kainz, director of statistics at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“This alone wasn’t news. Numerous studies have shown how the performance of African American students suffers in segregated schools.”

What causes achievement differences?

Kainz says that researchers have long faced a difficult problem when investigating the reasons behind differences in reading development or other learning outcomes in segregated settings.

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“The economic, social, and academic backgrounds of the students who attend segregated schools could be the cause of differences in achievement—and not aspects of the segregated settings themselves,” says Kainz. The challenge, she explains, is in disentangling one group of potential causes from the other.

In order to separate student characteristics from aspects of segregated public schools, Kainz used a statistical technique called “propensity score matching,” which allows for comparison of reading growth in segregated and non-segregated schools, while also accounting for numerous differences in the students’ backgrounds.

When the analysis revealed that African American students displayed less growth in reading during first grade in segregated schools than in other public schools, Kainz realized the primary reason was the segregated schools themselves—not the students.

“When similar groups of first graders do better in one type of school than another, then it must be some aspect of the school that accounts for the difference,” Kainz says. “This study goes further than any other in being able to say, ‘It’s not the kids.'”

How to integrate schools

Kainz, a research associate professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has studied effective education practices, especially for economically disadvantaged students. She says zeroing in on the precise opportunities to promote better and more even reading development for African-American students in segregated settings remains challenging.

“It may be that segregated schools affect African-American students in particular because these schools have fewer resources to devote to high-quality instruction, experience more teacher turnover, and are more likely to employ novice teachers,” Kainz explains.

“In addition, the communities surrounding segregated schools may not have as many supports for reading development outside of the school day and year.”

Although segregated neighborhoods and communities persist, Kainz says some local measures can help to bring more integrated schools, such as care in residential planning—including the location and concentration of low-income housing—and in drawing attendance lines for schools.

“Many communities have direct local control over processes that can ensure they don’t inadvertently promote segregation,” she says.

“Researchers and educators, in partnership, must identify the ways and means to promote adequate learning for all students,” adds Kainz, who published her results in Early Childhood Research Quarterly. “Sixty years after the Brown decision, we still have plenty of work ahead of us.”

Source: UNC-Chapel Hill