Which Schools Are “Racially Representative?” It Depends on the Definition You Use.

The New York City public school population is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse in the country. Yet the entrenched racial and socio-economic segregation of City schools has been the object of increasing attention. During the last two years, the NYC DOE has made fostering school diversity—broadly defined—a central pillar of its agenda to advance equity.

One of the district’s stated goals is to increase the number of students who attend “racially representative” schools. How one defines “racially representative” is complicated, especially in a city with so much racial diversity and racial segregation across neighborhoods. In this Spotlight post, the first in our series exploring segregation and efforts to desegregate NYC schools, we identify racially representative schools according to three definitions:

  • Proportion of Black and Latino Students in a School. This definition was used by the DOE in its 2017 diversity plan. It states that a racially representative school is one where at least 50 percent but no more than 90 percent of its student body is Black or Latino.
  • School Compared to Community School District (CSD) Racial Demographics. This definition, first proposed by the School Diversity Advisory Group, compares the proportions of Asian, Black, Latino and White students in each school to the proportions residing in the school’s Community School District (CSD), regardless of whether they attend school in the CSD. A school is considered racially representative if the proportion for each group falls within 10 percentage points of its proportion in the CSD.
  • School Compared to Borough Racial Demographics. This definition compares the proportion of Asian, Black, Latino, and White students in each school to the proportions residing in the borough in which the school is located. A school is considered racially representative if the proportion for each group falls within 10 percentage points of its proportion in the borough.

These definitions differ in terms of both which racial groups and which reference populations are used to determine if a school is racially representative. These distinctions are important, since a school that appears racially representative compared to its CSD may be quite segregated compared to its borough or the city at large.

In Figure 1, we show the proportions of elementary and middle schools that were racially representative during the 2017-2018 school year—for the City as a whole and for each of the five boroughs—using the three different definitions outlined above.[1] The analysis includes both traditional district schools and charters. When using the concentration of Black and Latino students in a school, we find that a little over a quarter of all elementary and middle schools are racially representative (328 schools). When comparing school racial demographics to their CSD, the proportion of schools that are racially representative is slightly higher, at just over 30 percent (367 schools). However, when comparing school racial demographics to the borough in which they are located, only about 9 percent of schools—or 105 schools—are racially representative.

Figure 1: Proportion of Racially Representative Elementary and Middle Schools in NYC, and Within Each Borough, Using Three Definitions, 2017-2018

Graph of racially segregated and non-racially segregated schools in the district

The first definition—based on the concentration of Black or Latino students in a school—produces a relatively comparable proportion of racially representative schools across each of the five boroughs, ranging from 20 percent in the Bronx to 36 percent in Queens. The somewhat higher proportions in Staten Island and Queens are likely due to the large populations of Asian students who live in Queens and White students who live in Staten Island.  

The boroughs look very different by the other two definitions, however. Most notably, nearly half of all elementary and middle schools in the Bronx and a third of schools in Brooklyn are racially representative in comparison to their CSD, while only 12 percent of the schools in Queens are. When we compare schools to the demographics of their borough, only the Bronx has more than a quarter of its schools defined as racially representative. Strikingly, fewer than 1 percent of schools in Brooklyn and fewer than 3 percent of schools in Queens are racially representative when compared to their borough.

Big Questions:

How we identify racially diverse schools matters for how we approach the problem of school segregation in NYC. In its 2019 report, the NYC School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) explicitly tied its recommendations to these increasingly broad definitions of representation. In the short-run, the SDAG advocated for policies to make schools representative of their CSD, while in the long-run advocated for representation at the borough and city levels.[2] There remain many important questions about how we measure segregation in NYC and track progress over time. These questions include:

  • What factors explain different levels of racial representation when using each of these measures, and what are the biggest challenges to progress on each?
  • What measures should we use to assess the effects of racial and socio-economic segregation in NYC schools (e.g., do students in highly segregated schools have access to fewer resources or less rigorous coursework?)? What measures should we use to determine whether burgeoning desegregation efforts are making a difference? Many scholars (in NYC and nationally) have embraced a definition based on the percentage of Black and Latino students in a school—which importantly captures the extent to which Black and Latino students attend school apart from White and Asian students. However, questions have been raised about the utility of this approach in NYC, given real differences in demographics across neighborhoods and boroughs. A definition focused on a school’s CSD takes into account the fact that neighborhoods are already racially segregated, and that elementary and middle school students generally attend schools near where they live. Which definition(s) should the Research Alliance use as we continue working to understand patterns of segregation in NYC schools?
  • Finally, what kinds of diversity do we miss when we think only in terms of four racial categories? There are many differences within these categories, including differences associated with ethnicity, income, immigration status, language, religion, special needs, and prior opportunities and achievement. How, if at all, should these dimensions of diversity be incorporated into measures of school segregation and integration?

Check back next week for another Spotlight post focused segregation in NYC schools.

[1] We exclude schools that serve 9th through 12th grade from this analysis, given that high school students are more likely to attend high schools outside of their residential CSD or even borough.

[2] The SDAG stated that this should be the ultimate goal. Out of the 1,218 schools analyzed in this Spotlight, there are only 15 that are racially representative of NYC as a whole.

What else should we be asking about defining racially representative schools? Let us know via email.

This post was authored by Kathryn Hill, Zitsi Mirakhur, and John Sludden. Special thanks to Sean Corcoran for his generous feedback on earlier drafts of this work.

Posted: December 11th, 2019