School Segregation*

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The extent to which students within different race and ethnicity groups are unevenly distributed across schools when compared with the racial and ethnic composition of the local population. The index ranges from 0 to 1 with lower values representing a school composition that approximates race and ethnicity distributions in the student populations within the county, and higher values representing more segregation. The 2024 Annual Data Release used data from 2022-2023 for this measure.

The Brown v. Board of Education United States Supreme Court case declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in 1954. This famous case followed the 1946 federal court case Mendez v. Westminster School District, which ruled segregation of Mexican American students unconstitutional. Progress toward desegregation was slow and opposed by many individuals, organizations, and government officials. For example, in the late 1950s Native students of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians were permitted to ride buses to previously all-white schools in Alabama, but only if the Native students had skin deemed light enough.1 Desegregation of schools peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1991, in the Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell decision, the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation efforts may be dissolved. As a result of such legal rulings and patterns of segregated living and school enrollment, contact between racial groups in public schools have declined.2 Approximately 37% of Black students in the U.S. enrolled in majority white schools in 1988, but in 2018, the percentage declined to 19%. Currently, Black students attend schools with more Hispanics than whites.3 For Hispanic students, school segregation has steadily increased with population shifts and Hispanic students now face higher levels of segregation nationally than Black students.

The Brown decision deemed the doctrine of “separate but equal” unconstitutional and acknowledged that equality in segregation is not possible. This ruling is supported by recent statistics showing that Black and Hispanic students are most likely to experience intense segregation in school and also most likely to be concentrated in under-resourced, high-poverty schools with less experienced and credentialed teachers and higher teacher turnover.3-5 In rural areas white and Native students students can face high levels of segregation and similar barriers to success including increased poverty.6

School segregation strongly reflects residential segregation; however, the policies that drive school and residential segregation are under the jurisdictions of separate decision-making bodies, creating multiple avenues for progress. School segregation is more highly associated with achievement gaps than residential segregation, which suggests that school segregation may affect additional pathways to student achievement beyond those explained by residential segregation (e.g., teacher retention and credentials, school resources, breadth of curriculum, and advanced course offerings).4

Schools where the majority of students have minoritized racial or ethnic identities can be culturally affirming by centering ways of being for students who may otherwise find themselves on the margins; however, demonstrated relationships between economic segregation, racial segregation, and fewer academic opportunities mean that students in these settings may still experience inequitable outcomes.7 Studies show that racial/ethnic segregation in schools is negatively associated with achievement, college success, long-term employment, and income for students of color. School segregation leads to racial gaps in the identification of students who would benefit from special education, perpetuating racial gaps into adulthood.8

In addition to negatively impacting opportunities for students in schools experiencing disinvestment, school segregation can hinder the development of diverse perspectives. In the U.S., social networks continue to be homogeneous - for example, the majority of white adults in the U.S. have entirely white social networks.9 While not without challenges, studies have found that students in diverse, well-resourced schools have more opportunities to gain civic benefits, including skills in working collaboratively across lines of difference, development of equitable and inclusive habits, and experience in aggregating wisdom.10

Find strategies to address School Segregation*

Data and methods

Data Source

National Center for Education Statistics

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) fulfills a Congressional mandate to collect, collate, analyze, and report complete statistics on the condition of American education; conduct and publish reports; and review and report on education activities internationally.

NCES is the primary federal entity responsible for collecting and analyzing data related to education. For states where cohort graduation data was not available, the Average Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) was used. AFGR by county were estimated based on school district information provided to us by the NCES.

Website to download data

Key Measure Methods

School Segregation is an index

School Segregation measures how evenly representation of racial and ethnic groups in the student population is spread across schools using Theil's Index, a segregation index. The index ranges from 0 to 1 with lower values representing a school composition that approximates race and ethnicity distributions in the student populations within the county, and higher values representing more segregation.

Some data are suppressed

An estimate is only calculated when at least two of the race-ethnicity categories have 25 or more students in at least one school within a given county.

Caution should be used when comparing these estimates across states

There are inconsistencies between states in how students in schools run by Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) are counted. In states that provide support to federal BIE schools, students at these schools may be double counted in National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data. 

Measure limitations

NCES data is limited in that it does not include private school students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of students attended private schools in 2019. The opportunity for a given student to attend a school across districts is not independent of race. Private schools in the U.S. disproportionately serve white and higher-income families. 

School segregation can occur at a variety of levels (e.g., school, district, county, region), by measuring at the county-level we are inevitably underreporting the amount of school segregation taking place in certain regions of the country. For instance, if school segregation is largely occurring between counties, and not within counties, this measure will vastly underestimate the true burden.

Multiple factors lead to the negative outcomes associated with school segregation. This measure cannot capture the interplay between school resources, economic segregation, racial segregation, and academic achievement. 

Can This Measure Be Used to Track Progress

This measure can be used to track progress.

Finding More Data

Disaggregation means breaking data down into smaller, meaningful subgroups. Disaggregated data are often broken down by characteristics of people or where they live. Disaggregated data can reveal inequalities that are otherwise hidden. These data can be disaggregated by:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Education
  • Subcounty Area

The National Center for Education Statistics, provides a variety of student data. This measure could be created at different grade levels, geographic level, free-lunch status, etc.


1 Bender A. Dr. King spoke out against the genocide of Native Americans. 2014. People’s World. 

2 Fiel JE, Zhang Y. Three dimensions of change in school segregation: A grade-period-cohort analysis. Demography. 2017;55(1):33-58. 

3 Orfield G, Jarvie D. Black segregation matters - School resegregation and Black educational opportunity. Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project, University of California Los Angeles; 2020. 

4 Orfield G, Ee J, Frankenberg E, Siegel-Hawley G. “Brown” at 62: School segregation by race, poverty and state. Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project, University of California Los Angeles; 2016. 

5 Frankenberg E, Ee J, Syscue JB, Orfield G. Harming our common future: America’s segregated school 65 years after Brown. Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project, Center for Education and Civil Rights; 2019. Accessed December 20, 2023.

6 Logan JR, Burdick-Will J. School segregation and disparities in urban, suburban, and rural Areas. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2017;674(1):199-216. 

7 Harris OD III. From margin to center: Participating in village pedagogy at Historically Black colleges and universities. The Urban Review. 44(3):332-357.

8 Elder TE, Figlio DN, Imberman SA, Persico CL. School segregation and racial gaps in special education identification. National Bureau of Economic Research. 2019: Working Paper 25829. Accessed December 20, 2023.

9 Cox D, Navarro-Rivera J, Jones RP. Race, religion, and political affiliation of Americans’ core social networks. Washington, D.C.: Public Religion Research Institute; 2016.

10 Levinson ML. Chapter 4: Diversity and civic education. In: Campbell D, Levinson M, Hess F, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press; 2012:89-114.

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