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Economic Segregation in Schools Rising, Study Finds

Multi-institutional Team Finds That Effect Hits Latino Students Hardest

By Maryland Today Staff

Desks in an empty classroom

A classroom divide is growing between students from lower- and middle-income households, a dynamic that has negative learning consequences for children living in poverty and hits Latino students particularly hard, according to new research.

Photo by iStock

Economic segregation in schools has deepened in recent years—a nationwide trend that holds negative consequences for learning among children living in poverty, according to a new study by a team that includes University of Maryland education researchers.

In 2000, the average child from a family living below the poverty line attended an elementary school where 45% of those enrolled were children from families defined as middle class. By 2015, that figure had fallen to 36% nationwide.

Children from Latino families living in poverty were hit especially hard in both urban and suburban areas, where they grew increasingly isolated from peers from white, middle-income families, according to the study published last week in the American Journal of Education.

“The growing segregation of the haves and have-nots over the past two decades makes it more difficult to narrow widening racial gaps in student learning seen during the COVID era,” said Bruce Fuller, University of California, Berkeley professor and director of the new study. “As educators and policymakers help families recover from the pandemic, they must recognize this deep-seated shift in American society: the isolation of children who start out way behind.”

This worsening segregation of children by economic class stems from climbing Latino enrollments, uneven levels of “white flight” from many school districts, and wealthier parents moving farther from people living in poverty, the researchers said.

“This study is part of a research agenda that aims at uncovering school opportunities and inequities for Latinx students in the elementary grades,” said Claudia Galindo, a study co-author and an associate professor of education policy and leadership at UMD. “We find that Latinx segregation is more pronounced at the district level than at the school level and that demographic changes in districts are key to understanding segregation.”

Researchers tracked trends across more than 14,000 school districts nationwide and found that children of color and from low-income households attended schools with a diminishing number of predominantly white, middle-class peers.

While metrics for economic integration were trending downhill, educators in several metropolitan areas were able to improve the integration of children from poorer families who are schooled with a rising share of peers from middle class families. Earlier research shows that children from low-income families markedly benefit when attending classrooms with peers from middle-class families.

“If we are really committed to eliminating Latinx students' segregation, we need to implement a multimethod and equity-oriented approach that includes within-district and between-district strategies,” Galindo said.

This article is based on a news release from the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Education.

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