Although U.S. schools are more racially diverse than ever before, they are growing increasingly segregated, with African American and Latina/o students attending more segregated schools than at any time in the past 20 years (Orfield, 2009). Although current levels of school segregation are reminiscent of the pre-Brown era, the demographics of students in U.S. schools have shifted dramatically since that time. One of the most notable shifts has been the growth of the English language learner (ELL) student population, a population that has more than doubled in the past 25 years, with high growth expected to continue (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2011).
Although the ELL population is growing, the extent to which such students are affected by segregation by race, poverty, and language proficiency is not well understood. This study examined the segregation of ELL students in schools across Texas, the state with the second largest population of ELL students in the United States (NCES, 2010), by using school-level data from the Texas Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) data system. We consider how federal and state legal decisions and policies have directly and indirectly affected levels of school segregation for ELL students in the state. We then descriptively examine levels of racial, economic, and linguistic isolation experienced by students across the state of Texas. Finally, we conduct an inferential statistical analysis to understand the association between segregation by race/ethnicity, economic disadvantage, and language proficiency with high-stakes accountability ratings.
Citation: Vasquez Heilig J. & Holme, J. (2013). Nearly 50 Years Post-Jim Crow: Persisting and Expansive School Segregation for African American, Latina/o and ELL students in Texas. Education and Urban Society. doi: 10.1177/0013124513486289
Abstract: This study addresses the segregation of English language learner (ELL) students in schools across Texas. We descriptively analyze levels of racial, economic, and linguistic isolation experienced by ELL students across the state of Texas. We also examine the association between segregation by race/ethnicity, economic disadvantage, and language proficiency with high-stakes accountability ratings. Despite nearly two decades of accountability policies that have promised equality, our statistical analyses show that a majority of ELL students in Texas still attend high-poverty and high-minority schools, and we find that segregation by socioeconomic status (SES) and race and ethnicity is highly significant for predicting whether schools will be low performing relative to high performing.
Our Findings: Our analyses of Texas data indicate that ELL students in Texas experience high levels of segregation in schools by race, poverty, and language status. The reasons for the growing segregation are less clear, and merit further research; but there are a number of potential causes indicated within the literature. One such cause indicated within the research literature is the growing residential segregation by race, language proficiency, and poverty—segregation that has increasingly been found, as our data show, in suburban school systems. It is also possible that educational policies contribute to high levels of triple segregation as well. Some policies that have been adopted with the intent of improving language acquisition, as in the past, have the effect of increasing linguistic isolation: for example, research has found that school systems that are racially diverse often adopt “clustered bilingual” programs in an effort to best serve the linguistic needs of ELL students. As in the past, a linguistic rationale used by school districts in terms of meeting the needs of ELL has the effect (intentionally or unintentionally) of increasing isolation of ELL students and reducing exposure to native speakers during the school day.
Another policy that can have the indirect effect of worsening ELL segregation is school choice: Many school districts in the state of Texas have adopted “open enrollment” policies that allow students to transfer between schools within the same district. These policies, as research has shown, tend to advantage more well-resourced students (particularly because transportation is not provided with most such policies). Due to differences in cultural and social capital, it is likely that students whose home language is not English are less likely to take advantage of choice (Vasquez Heilig, 2011a) due to lack of familiarity with the application process.
One of the most significant contributions to segregation in schools, however, is housing. ELL students, who are often Latina/o, are increasingly residentially isolated in urban and, increasingly, suburban neighborhoods. As Gandara and Contreras (2009) observed, “Housing segregation has particularly onerous effects on Latina/o students learning English. When students’ lack appropriate language models and individuals with whom to interact in English, their acquisition of academic English is delayed” (p. 74). This lack of opportunity is exacerbated when students residing in high-poverty and linguistically isolated neighborhoods attend schools isolated by race/ethnicity, poverty, and language.
In conclusion, nearly 50 years since Jim Crow, the intensity of segregation in Texas schools is still largely problematic. Our statistical analyses show that a majority of ELL students in Texas attend high-poverty and high-minority schools. One positive note is that elementary schools serving ELL students are more likely to be high performing than low performing schools. However, this finding is tempered by the fact that as ELL students progress in the education pipeline in Texas, they are more likely to attend low performing middle schools and high schools (results not shown). Furthermore, ELLs enrolled in secondary schools ultimately have the highest dropout rates and lowest tests scores and graduation rates in Texas (Vasquez Heilig, 2011a). Surprisingly, after almost two decades of Texas-style accountability, the overall finding that segregation by SES and race and ethnicity is still highly significant for predicting whether schools will be low performing relative to high performing suggests that high-stakes testing and accountability as systemic reforms have still not delivered as a cure-all in Texas.
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