Are U. S. Schools Really Resegregating?

Are U. S. schools really resegregating?
Segregation still in decline despite decreasing black exposure to white students
Percentages of other ethnic groups increasing rapidly

January 26, 2016—Are schools in the United States becoming resegregated? The Supreme Court softened its stance on desegregation in the 1990s, ruling that school districts could not be held responsible for low student achievement in segregated settings. “Resegregation” has appeared repeatedly in news headlines over the past five years. But in a new article for Education Next, Desegregation Since the Coleman Report: Racial composition of schools and student learning,” Steven Rivkin of the University of Illinois at Chicago identifies a key trend masquerading as resegregation: the decreasing enrollment share of white students due to the increasing ethnic diversity of public schools.

Using data from the U.S. Department of Education for the years 1968, 1980, 1988, 2000, and 2012, Rivkin documents how public school enrollment patterns have changed over time.

Rivkin finds that black students’ likelihood of exposure to white students in 2012 was 27 percent, compared to 36 percent in the 1980s when serious desegregation efforts were underway (see Figure 1a below). Although desegregation efforts have certainly waned, Rivkin attributes this more so to the changing demographic composition of schools. While black students’ share of student enrollment has remained virtually constant since 1968 (between 15 and 17 percent), white students’ enrollment share has declined from 80 percent in 1968 to 51 percent 2012. Over this time period, other populations, such as Hispanic and Asian students, have gained enrollment share (see Figure 1c below).

An analysis of the dissimilarity index of schools, which measures how dissimilar schools’ enrollment patterns are compared to the national student population, reveals that segregation is not increasing (see Figure 1b). The index is equal to 0 if there is complete integration and 100 if there is complete segregation. Rivkin finds that the dissimilarity index in schools has decreased fifteen points from 1968 to 2012, from 81 to 66. Districts saw a small rise in dissimilarity between 1968 and 1988 which Rivkin attributes to the ‘white flight’ of families from urban areas to the suburbs.

The impact that the changing demographic composition of schools could have on the achievement of black students is not clear, especially given the difficulty of isolating the effects of desegregation. “One can say—without much scholarly help at all—that racial segregation is undoubtedly harmful to the well-being of a multi-ethnic society that aspires to equal opportunity for all. But if one digs deeper to measure the adverse effects of segregation on the learning of African American students, then one can only reach cautious judgments,” says Rivkin. In reviewing the available research on the effects of segregation on educational opportunities for black students, Rivkin concludes the effects of desegregation are most likely uneven and vary by program and context.

For an embargoed copy of “Desegregation Since the Coleman Report: Racial composition of schools and student learning” or to speak to the author, contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, January 26 on and will appear in the Spring 2016 issue of Education Next, on newsstands by March 1.

About the Author: Steven Rivkin is professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College