Effects of segregation on African American high school Seniors’ academic achievement, The

effects of segregation on African American high school Seniors’ academic achievement, The

Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin

This study examines the relationship between segregated education and school outcomes for African American adolescents in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, school district (CMS), regarded as a model of successful desegregated public schooling. Using 1997 survey data, it investigates the effects of segregated elementary education and racially identifiable tracked secondary courses on the academic achievement of 640 African American high school seniors. Findings indicate that many CMS schools remain segregated at the building level; at the secondary level, all core academic classes were tracked and racially identifiable, with Black students disproportionately found in lower tracks. Both forms of segregated schooling had negative effects on academic outcomes. Importantly, desegregated learning environments benefited the academic performance of Black students who experienced them.

A key tenet of the American Dream is that all citizens are entitled to equality of educational opportunity. Since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision, the desegregation of public schooling has remained an important component of federal and state education policies designed to expand educational opportunities for racial/ethnic minority youth. The educational rationale for school desegregation rests largely upon claims that it improves the access of minority students to the higher quality education generally available to White Americans and therefore improves both minority students’ educational outcomes and life chances. Evidence clearly demonstrates that desegregation improves the long-term life chances of minority students. At the same time, the evidence in support of the claim that desegregation improves short-term educational outcomes has been equivocal. This article investigates possible reasons for the equivocal findings regarding the short-term outcomes of desegregation for African American high school students in a district widely considered to be one of the nation’s most successfully desegregated school systems.

Although the implementation of desegregation policies has been uneven and unstable across the nation’s 16,000 school districts during the past 40 years, one stable and virtually universal feature of U.S. public schools is their organization of learning and instruction by academic tracks in secondary schools and ability groups in the early grades. In theory, tracking is designed to enhance teaching and learning through targeting instruction and course content to the student’s ability and prior knowledge. However, there is little consistent evidence that, as implemented, tracking is the best form of classroom organization for maximizing opportunities to learn for most students. To the contrary, ample evidence suggests that tracking hinders mid- and low-ability students’ opportunities to learn. Moreover, track placements are strongly correlated with students` race/ethnicity and social class, and within desegregated schools tracking often resegregates students by these attributes. Tracking, then, has the potential to undermine the potential short-term benefits of school-level desegregation for low-income and minority students.

The complicated relationships among equality of educational opportunity, desegregation, and tracking lie at the heart of this study of the effects of school desegregation and tracking on the school outcomes of African American high school seniors in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Schools (CMS). The CMS district is an important site for investigating these questions because it has been under a court mandate to desegregate since the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. Many observers consider CMS to be one of the nation’s most successfully desegregated public school systems (Douglas, 1995). Therefore, an empirical examination of the relationship of school segregation and/or desegregation to the academic achievement of Blacks is an especially important endeavor with possible implications far beyond the district’s own boundaries.


Social scientists, political and educational leaders, civil rights advocates, and ordinary citizens have debated the social and academic effects of school desegregation on students since the issuance of the 1966 Coleman Report (Coleman et al., 1966). Though there is little argument about the positive long-term effects of desegregation, reasonable questions remain about the policy’s short-term effects on achievement of both minority and majority youth. During the years following the Coleman et al. study, social scientists developed a consensus that the effects of desegregated education were generally beneficial, but limited. However, most early empirical studies of desegregation suffered from limitations in their design and samples, thereby making any definitive research on the question of desegregation effects very difficult. As the number of desegregated school systems increased, and as greater numbers of children experienced desegregated schooling, it became possible for social scientists to conduct more rigorous studies.

In the years following the Swann decision, many studies attempted to assess desegregation’s effects on student achievement, aspirations, minority self-esteem, and race relations. Still, no consensus emerged regarding desegregation’s effects because the post-Swann findings were inconsistent with one another. Some studies found small positive effects; some found no effects, and others found negative effects (Armor, 1995; Rossell, 1990). Despite this inconsistency, some social scientists interpreted the early research record on the short-term effects of desegregation more optimistically (Bankston & Caldas, 1996, Hallinan, 1998; Hochschild, 1984; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], 1991; Orfield & Eaton, 1996; Wells & Crain, 1994,1996). These scholars concluded that limited exposure to desegregated education in a school that does little to equalize educational opportunity brings no benefits to minority students, but when schools employ practices to enhance equality of opportunity (including the elimination of tracking and ability grouping), desegregation has clear, albeit modest, academic benefits for Black students while doing no harm to Whites.

More recent research offers unambiguous evidence of the positive effects of desegregated schooling. Using the entire state of Louisiana school population as a sample, Bankston and Caldas (1996) examined the influence of the racial/ethnic composition of a school on individual student achievement. They found that minority concentration in a school has a powerful negative effect on the academic achievement of Black and White students. Brown (1999) used data from the 1990 National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) to demonstrate that high schools with enrollments that are almost entirely White do not necessarily produce the best academic outcomes for all students. The ideal racial/ethnic mix, she contended, is between 61% and 90% White or Asian American and between 10% and 39% Black and Hispanic American. She found schools with this mix to have the highest academic achievement and the smallest gap between racial/ethnic groups in grades and test scores. Moreover, these trends were found to hold even when accounting for socioeconomic differences among students. Similarly, Schiff, Firestone, and Young (1999) report that after controlling for family background, both Black and White students who attended racially desegregated schools where Whites were the majority had higher National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and mathematics scores than did those who attended racially isolated White or racially isolated Black schools.


The research on the effects of tracking consistently shows that, overall, the majority of students gain little from tracked schooling. There is some evidence that students benefit from the more rigorous instruction typically found in higher tracks, but those effects are small. Supporters of tracking maintain that the practice is effective for targeting instruction to maximize learning (Loveless, 1999). They assert that many of the shortcomings of tracking are unintended negative outcomes due to technical and implementation errors, not necessarily flaws in the principles of tracking (Hallinan, 1994a, 1994b). Critics of the practice argue that it is a significant source of inequality of opportunity within all schools where it is implemented (Oakes, 1990). The historical origins of tracking can be traced back to early 20th-century racist efforts to separate then-recent European and other immigrants, Blacks, and Hispanics from native-born White Americans of Northern and Western European descent, and to provide both groups with education commensurate with perceived racial/ethnic differences (Terman, 1923; Tyack, 1974). Today, however, tracking is generally not used for the formal purpose of providing unequal educational opportunities to children from different racial/ethnic and social-class backgrounds.1

Irrespective of intent, in practice, tracking functions as a major source of unequal opportunities to learn. Tracked academic courses in schools that enroll diverse populations of students reflect both social class and racial/ethnic stratification. Partly because poor and minority students tend to have lower achievement scores than do middle-class and nonminority students, the former are placed disproportionately in low-achieving classes and nonacademic tracks. By contrast, middle-class students are disproportionately placed in high-achieving classes and college preparatory courses and tracks (Lucas, 1999; Oakes, 1985, 1990, 1994b, 1994c). Test scores further reflect the cumulative effects of prior ability grouping or tracking, but they are only one criterion among many that educational decision makers use when deciding students’ track placement or course assignments. Parental interventions in the placement process, teacher recommendations, and student characteristics (i.e., race and gender) also contribute to the placement decisions made by educational gatekeepers. Students themselves participate, to varying degrees, in the course selection process; however, the course placement process’s center of gravity remains in the hands of educational decision makers (Cicourel & Kitsuse, 1963; Yonazawa, 1997).

The Effects of Tracking

Reviews of the literature most often conclude that tracking and ability grouping have little or no consistent overall positive effect (Lucas, 1999; Slavin, 1990; Wheelock, 1992). Some studies, however, indicate that homogeneous grouping promotes better performance among high achievers while it further depresses the performance of low-achieving students (Braddock & Dawkins, 1993; Cicourel & Kitsuse, 1963; Gamoran, 1990; Sorensen & Hallinan, 1986; Spade, Columbia, & Vanfossen, 1997). Webb, Nemer, Chizhik, and Sugrue (1998) found that heterogeneous groups in middle school science classes provided greater benefit to below-average students than they imposed a detriment on high-ability students.

Many scholars have documented the detrimental aspects of ability grouping and tracking on student outcomes, especially those from disadvantaged minority groups (Donelan, Neal, & Jones, 1994; Lucas, 1999; Oakes, 1985, 1990, 1994b, 1994c; Wheelock, 1992). Oakes (1990) reports that students in high-ability classes generally have more challenging instruction than do those in low-ability classes, which tend to emphasize simple memory tasks and literal comprehension. She concludes that the rudimentary curriculum content of low-ability classes frequently locks students into that track level because they are not exposed to the prerequisite knowledge required for transfer to higher levels. Other researchers find that less effective teachers are assigned to lower track classes (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Finley, 1984; Ingersoll, 1999). In this way, ability grouping and tracking frequently reinforce the learning problems of disadvantaged students by providing them with less effective instructors who teach the least challenging curricula using the methods least likely to challenge students to learn.

The Tracking Process

One reason research has failed to demonstrate the benefits of tracking may be that the practice is rarely implemented as it was designed to be implemented. In theory, students are to be assigned to ability groups and tracks according to their past achievement and abilities (Broaded, 1997; Hallinan, 1992; Lucas, 1999). However, Cicourel and Kitsuse (1963) demonstrated how track placement decisions are socially constructed by educational decision makers. Additionally, Hallinan and Sorensen (1983) showed that ability grouping is the result of an organizational decision that at times is made independently of the distribution of student ability in a school and is instead related to the structure and organizational characteristics of schools and classrooms. Further, Riehl, Pallas, and Natriello (1999) revealed how scheduling urban secondary students into educational trajectories is complicated by technical exigencies that often result in ineffective and inappropriate placements.

Research also has failed to demonstrate that track structures have been adapted to the changing student populations in schools. As Spade et al. (1997) reported, the organization of schooling across social classes exerts indirect control over the tracking of students, both by controlling access to course options and through mechanisms for placing students in tracks. For these reasons, Jones, Vanfossen, and Ensminger (1995) contended that students with similar individual characteristics may find themselves in different tracks. Consequently, with some important exceptions, ability levels of students in different tracks tend to overlap considerably.

Tracking and Race

Previous studies of the correlates of track placement indicate that in addition to school processes and organizational factors, social class, prior achievement, race, and gender are also important individual determinants of track placement (Gamoran & Mare, 1989; Hallinan, 1992; Jones et al., 1995; Rosenbaum, 1980; Useem, 1992). Lucas (1999) reported evidence that tracking maintains racial/ethnic segregation in the wake of judicially mandated desegregation. For example, he found that Blacks suffered disadvantaged access to enrollment in high tracks through 12th grade; however, his evidence of the relationships among race/ethnicity, gender, social class, and track placement in middle school was equivocal.

Lee, Smith, and Croninger (1997) showed how track placement influences the equitable distribution of opportunities to learn mathematics and science. Their research demonstrated that because minorities are more likely to live in low-income communities where schools are less likely to have content-certified teachers, sophisticated educational equipment, and advanced course offerings, even the most gifted minority student is less likely to take advanced mathematics and science classes compared to an average-ability, middleclass child in a suburban high school. Given the correlation between economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds on the one hand and low-track placements on the other, Oakes (1990) concluded that ability grouping and tracking frequently constitute in-school barriers to upward mobility for capable poor and minority students. Based on her research in tracked, desegregated school systems in San Jose, California, and Rockford, Illinois, Oakes maintained that tracking, even in schools that are technically desegregated, results in segregation within schools that is harmful to minority students. She further suggested that the practice of tracking unjustifiably assigns disproportionate numbers of minority students to lower tracks and excludes them from the accelerated ones; moreover, tracking offers such students inferior opportunities to learn and is partly responsible for their lower achievement. As Oakes (1993, 1994a) later concluded, tracking creates a discriminatory cycle of restricted educational opportunities for minorities that leads to diminished school achievement that exacerbates racial/ethnic and social-class differences in minority and majority school outcomes.


The Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system is an excellent research site to investigate the relationships among equality of educational opportunity, desegregation, and tracking. Historically, the majority of students attending schools in the district have been White. Most CMS students have attended a racially balanced (desegregated) school during some portions of their academic careers in the CMS system.2 The district’s population of White and minority students has remained somewhat stable. The population of African American students has ranged from 38% to 42% of the total CMS population since the 1970s. Unlike other districts experiencing a diminishing White student population, CMS’s relatively stable demographic mix itself does not undermine efforts to desegregate the schools. Until recently, the numbers of Asian American, Hispanic American, and American Indian students were quite low. For example, for the 1988-89 school year, only 3.2% of CMS students were neither Black nor White. Ten years later, only 7.7% were members of these groups.3 Additionally, because the countywide school system covers over 500 square miles, the problem of “White flight” has not been a significant factor complicating implementation of the plan or assessments of desegregation’s effects (Lord, 1999; Rossell, 1990).

Desegregation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools: A Brief History

The CMS district has been desegregating since the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Swann case held that mandatory busing was an appropriate remedy for de jure segregation (Douglas, 1995). Until 1992, almost every CMS student was bused to school during some portion of her or his educational career, although Blacks were more likely to have been bused for more years than were Whites. In 1992, the district ceased the use of mandatory busing as the primary tool for desegregation, as permitted by the Swann ruling, and began to use magnet schools as the key strategy for achieving racially balanced schools. Initially, most magnet programs were placed in the predominately Black innercity schools within the district, but today magnets exist throughout the countywide district. By 1999, approximately 45 of the 130 CMS schools were magnet schools or had magnet programs within them.

Seats in the district’s magnet schools are allocated under a controlled choice lottery plan designed to voluntarily desegregate the schools. In 1998, a White parent sued the district, claiming his daughter’s denial of a spot in a magnet school violated her 14th Amendment rights because a Black child with a higher lottery number gained a seat in the magnet school to which she applied (Capacchione et al. v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 1998).4 Soon thereafter, the Swann plaintiffs reactivated their suit, arguing that CMS had failed to carry out the original court order to desegregate, and that Black children continued to be injured by the vestiges of the segregation declared unlawful in 1971. The Belles and the Collinses, two younger Black families with children currently in the school district, later joined the legal proceedings.

The defendant in both the Capacchione and reactivated Swann case (now also known as Belk et al. v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District) was the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.5 CMS took the position that although its good faith efforts had made substantial progress in eliminating the vestiges of the dual system, the district was not yet unitary. Judge Robert Potter consolidated all the cases into one, and arguments were heard in spring 1999. In September 1999, Potter declared CMS to be unitary and ordered the immediate end to the district’s desegregation efforts. He also enjoined CMS from using race-conscious policies or practices in any of its future actions and awarded nominal damages to the White plaintiffs. Both the Swann plaintiffs and the school system appealed this decision.

In December 1999, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an indefinite stay of the lower court’s order pending the outcome of the appeal process. Eleven months later, in November 2000, a three-judge panel overturned the lower court’s decision declaring the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to be unitary. The judges remanded the case back to the federal district court along with clear criteria for weighing the evidence and applying relevant case law in its deliberations. Two months later, however, in January 2001, the full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case en banc, thereby reinstating the district court judge’s original September 1999 unitary decision. The full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in February 2001. Numerous observers on both sides predict that ultimately the case will return to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ability Grouping and Tracking in the CMS System

At least since the late 1970s, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system has separated students for instruction by placing them into ability groups and tracks. For example, until 1997, elementary gifted and talented CMS students were pulled out of their regular classrooms for supplemental education. Currently, a new elementary program for the gifted operates in self-contained classrooms within selected schools. Several elementary magnet schools have been designated as entirely gifted and talented schools. Academic tracking is also evident throughout CMS secondary schools. With the exception of most classes in one “open” middle school, all CMS secondary mathematics, science, English, and social studies classes are tracked.6

Track placement and student race intersect in predictable ways in the CMS system. On the one hand, the district’s special education classes are overwhelmingly Black; classes in the lowest non-special education tracks (termed “regular” classes) are also majority Black. The top academic tracks, on the other hand, are composed of classes whose enrollments range from 100% to 80% non-Black (CMS, 1997-1999). Consequently, the degree of desegregated education experienced by students in a given CMS secondary school is not necessarily determined by the racial composition of the secondary schools they attended; rather, the amount of desegregated education they experience is affected more directly by the track in which they learn.

Resegregation via tracking undermined the potential benefits students might have gained from desegregation at the building level. Though CMS students, both Black and White, may have attended desegregated schools, due to pervasive tracking they have had widely disparate exposures to levels of desegregated education, particularly in their secondary school English, social studies, mathematics, and science courses. The dynamics of within-school segregation make evaluating the separate effects of segregation among schools (between-school segregation) and tracking (within-school segregation) on educational outcomes especially important.


The purpose of our research was first to determine the extent to which the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system has desegregated, and then to examine the effects of that desegregated education on the academic outcomes of African American students who attended those schools between 1983 and 1997. The substantive focus of this research was an examination of the following research questions:

(1) After almost 30 years of operating under the 1971 Supreme Court-ordered desegregation ruling in the Swann case, are the schools of the CMS district still segregated?

(2) Are schools in the district tracked, and if so, what is the relationship of tracking to their students’ academic outcomes?

(3) Do the racial /ethnic composition of the schools African American CMS students attend and the tracks in which they learn affect their educational outcomes?


Data Sources

To answer the above questions, we used data from several sources. Our primary source was a survey of CMS seniors conducted by the Business Leaders and School Reform Project (BLSR) under the direction of the first author (Mickelson). This ongoing research project has investigated school reform in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school district since the late 1980s. In addition to this survey data, we drew from expert reports filed in the Capacchione litigation, CMS reports, board minutes, and archival data from CMS as well as Mickelson’s interviews with teachers, administrators, and board members.


The sampling frame employed for the survey was a list of all secondary English courses offered for each period of the school day during academic year 1996-97 in all 11 CMS senior high schools. English classes were used because English is the only subject every student is required to take in his or her senior year. A 50% random sample of 12th-grade English classes, stratified by track and distinguished by course name, was drawn from every high school. All students in each selected class were surveyed (N= 1,830). The present study utilized data from the larger study’s African American subsample (n = 611).


A survey instrument was developed specifically for this study. That instrument was designed to ascertain CMS students’ attitudes toward education in general, their attitudes toward their own education and futures specifically, their educational and occupational aspirations, their perceptions of their own school-to-work preparedness, various indicators of the involvement of students’ families in education, students’ leisure time activities, and other school experiences. Student achievement and family background data were extracted from school system electronic files and matched by identification numbers with students’ survey responses. Included in the student-level variables was information about every school each student attended while enrolled in CMS. Other district records provided indicators of school-level variables, and Common Core of Data files from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provided information on the percentages of minority student enrolled in each CMS school since 1983, the year the oldest students in our sample entered kindergarten in CMS.7


The following student- and school-level variables were examined:

(1) Weighted Grade Point Average (WGPA): This weighted cumulative measure of high school achievement was used because students in Academically Gifted or Advanced Placement courses earned either five or six grade points compared to students in other courses who earned four points for each “A.”

(2) Gender: Students’ gender was categorized as either 1 (female) or 0 (male).

(3) Family Background: This composite measure of family background was created by combining-using factor analysis-mothers’ and fathers’ educational and occupational attainment. Occupational attainment was coded using the Nakao-Treas Occupational Prestige Index (1995); educational attainment was coded 1 (less than high school) through 5 (graduate degree).

(4) Cultural Capital: The construct of cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1977, 1987; DiMaggio, 1982; Lamont & Lareau, 1988), as distinguished from socioeconomic status (SES), was captured in survey items that focused on the extent to which CMS students received private art, music, or dance lessons during the three years prior to the study. Although cultural capital is a complex and nuanced social construct that includes much more than private art, music, and dance lessons (Farkas, 1996), this measure reflects families’ conscious attempts to explicitly expose their children to high culture, which is one important aspect of cultural capital. The resulting measure was used as a proxy for those aspects of family background that support educational outcomes but are not captured in traditional measures of SES.

(5) Prior Achievement: Students’ sixth-grade California Achievement Test (CAT) total battery scores served as an indicator of this construct.

(6) Effort: Students’ self-reports of the amount of effort they usually put into their schoolwork, ranging from 1 (just enough to get by) to 5 (as much effort as possible all the time).

(7) College-Bound Peer Group: Peer group influence on academic performance was ascer

tained by determining the proportion of each respondent’s close friends who planned to attend a four-year college (based on students’ self-reported information).

(8) Proportion of Elementary Education Received in a Segregated Black School: This indicator of exposure to segregated elementary schooling was ascertained from district information on students’ educational histories. It reflects the total number of years a student spent in a racially identifiable Black CMS elementary (K-6) school, divided by the total number of years she or he spent in the district’s elementary schools.8

(9) Track Placement: Track placement was both an independent and a dependent variable in our regression analyses. When track served as a predictor of achievement (WGPA), a dichotomous measure of students’ English track placement called College Track– coded as either College-Bound or Noncollege-Bound-was used. When track served as the dependent variable, Newtrack-an ordinal measure of track placement that indicates the hierarchical ordering of course ri or, coded as 1 (Regular), 2 (Advanced), 3 (Academically Gifted), or 4 (Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate)-was used. English track placement also is indicative of students’ placements in mathematics, science, and social studies (Waits, 1999).

(10) Magnet: This variable measured whether a student’s high school was or was not a magnet school. It was included in our analyses because CMS magnet schools have more human and material resources than do nonmagnet schools, especially compared to older nonmagnet schools.

(11) Percentage Gifted in the High School: This measure indicated the percentage of all students in each respondent’s high school who were designated as gifted or talented. It was included because schools receive gifted/talented teacher resources in accordance with the percentage of their students identified as gifted/talented. Percentage gifted/ talented also may indicate the degree of academic press evident in the school climate.

(12) ESL: This variable measured the percentage of students in each respondent’s high school who had limited English proficiency (LEP) and were designated as ESL (English-as-a-Second-Language) learners.

(13) Percentage Free/Reduced-Cost Lunch: This variable was measured by determining the percentage of students in each respondent’s high school who were designated as eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches. Because CMS’s methods of identification allowed eligible students to remain anonymous when purchasing lunches, this measure was a relatively reliable indicator of the school’s poverty level.

(14) License: The percentage of teachers in a school who were fully licensed and credentialed was reflected in this variable. Although this measure remains one of the best indicators of the allocation of teacher resources, it does not measure whether the teacher was actually instructing in the subject area of his/her licensure.

(15) MA: This variable indicates the percentage of teachers in a school who had master’s degrees.

Data Analysis

Data analysis proceeded in three stages. First, we examined official statistics, reports, and other documents. Next, we conducted multiple regression analyses of the individual, familial, and school characteristics that contributed to student achievement outcomes and track placement.9 Third, we used correlational analysis to investigate the relationships between the racial composition of CMS schools and their academic environments.


Were the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Still Racially Segregated?

Although the majority of CMS schools were still desegregated as of 1999, racial segregation in the district was found to continue in two forms. First, since the 1971 Swann decision, some schools have remained racially identifiable White or racially identifiable Black, and in recent years more have become racially identifiable-even though the county is demographically more residentially integrated than it was in 1971 (Lord, 1999). In the 1998-99 school year, for example, 17 elementary schools, 4 middle schools, 1 high school, and 7 special schools were racially identifiable Black (22%). By contrast, 8 elementary schools, 4 middle schools, and 1 high school were racially identifiable White (10%). Thus, a total of 32% of the 132 schools in the district were racially identifiable White or Black– that is, they were segregated. Therefore, it is not surprising that over the course of their CMS careers, 40% of the Black seniors and 15% of White seniors in the Class of 1997 spent at least one year in an elementary school that was racially identifiable Black.

Second, within almost every CMS site, instruction typically took place within racially identifiable ability groups, special classes, tracks, special programs, or separate alternative schools. At the elementary level, such within-school segregation often took the form of ability grouping within classrooms and/or special programs for both academically gifted (AG) and exceptional children (EC, or those needing special education). In CMS, identified elementary gifted and talented students were overwhelmingly White, while identified EC students were disproportionately Black (Kornhaber, 1994; Peterkin, 1997). If one considers placement in EC or gifted classes as a form of tracking (Alexander, Entwisle, and Letters, 1998), one may reasonably conclude that racially identifiable tracking begins in CMS’s elementary schools. Tracking beginning in elementary school is a major source of inequality of educational opportunity because it sets the stage, or trajectory, for secondary school track placement (Kornhaber, 1994).

Indeed, at the secondary level, a majority of English, mathematics, science, and social studies-the core CMS academic classes-were organized into strictly differentiated tracks that were decidedly racially segregated. Throughout the district’s high schools and middle schools, the higher the track, the more likely the students were to be White; conversely, the lower the track, the more likely the students were to be African Americans (Mickelson, 1998). For example, in the 1998-99 school year, Albemarle Road Middle School, with a student body that was 49.5% Black, was considered a desegregated school. Nevertheless, 88.5% of that school’s level-1 EC language arts students were Black. Likewise, in the seventh grade, 75% of students in the school’s remedial reading class were Black. Black students comprised 52.5% of students in regular language arts classes, but only 20.6% of the AG program’s students were African American. Similar patterns occurred in the eighth grade, in which 78.1% of students in remedial reading classes, compared to 10.8% of those in AG language, were Black; and in the ninth grade, 48.5% of students in regular language arts classes compared to 12% in AG classes were African Americans.

The same patterns appeared in CMS high schools. Providence High School, with its 7.9% African American student population, exhibited the same patterns as the middle school described above. Disproportionate numbers of Black students at that school were enrolled in EC English 12 (44%). In 12-grade regular English classes (the lowest level non-EC course), about 9% of the students were African American compared to only 1% of Advanced Placement (AP) English students. With an African American population of 33.5%, South Mecklenburg High School was considered racially balanced, or desegregated. Nevertheless, 43% of EC English 12,48% of Regular English, but only 1% of AP English 12 students at South Mecklenburg High were African American. Similarly, at West Charlotte, where African Americans comprised 55% of the student population, 100% of EC English 12 and 76% of Regular English, but only 19% of AP English, only 12 students were African American. This relationship between course rigor and the racial composition of an English class was replicated in every grade in every school (Mickelson, 1998). Virtually every secondary school in CMS followed this same disturbing pattern of within-school segregation in each of the other three academic core classes of mathematics, science, and social studies. Clearly, then, the pattern of second-generation segregation within schools is independent of the degree of first-generation desegregation between schools in the district. Did School Racial Composition Affect Students’ Academic Outcomes?

Our multiple regression analyses indicated that elementary school racial composition had both direct and indirect negative effects on CMS students’ academic outcomes. We found that even after we controlled for a host of individual and school-level factors, attending a racially identifiable Black elementary school had a direct negative effect on high school grades. Although the magnitude of the effect was small, the greater the proportion of a child’s elementary school education spent in racially identifiable Black schools, the lower his or her high school grade point average. Students’ prior achievement (as measured by their sixth-grade CAT scores), peer group, and effort had a positive effect on their grades. Gender and family SES were found not to influence academic outcomes; however, a family’s cultural capital (measured by students’ enrollment in private art, music, and dance lessons) had a positive effect on grades. Two school factors were found to affect grades: the percentage of gifted students in a student’s high school (a negative influence) and the high school’s status as a magnet (a positive effect). Thus, even after statistically controlling for students’ family background, gender, peer group influence, prior achievement, and other individual and school-level factors, the experience of having attended a segregated Black elementary school had a small but significant negative effect on high school achievement (see Table I).

Correlational analyses suggest why this was the case. We found disproportionately fewer school resources (human and material) related to opportunities to learn in the CMS district’s segregated Black schools. Students who attended these schools were more likely to learn from nontenured teachers, teachers who were not fully licensed, those who were new to the profession, and those who had not attained a master’s degree. Moreover, students in racially identifiable Black schools had classmates who were more likely to be poor, homeless, and speak English as a second language (see Table II). Interviews with principals confirmed the relationship reflected by these correlations as well as the complications and challenges educators and families face when they attempt to provide equality of educational opportunity to students in schools with these profiles (Natriello, McDill, & Pallas, 1990).

Did Track Placement Affect Academic Outcomes?

The single largest factor in students’ track placement was their prior achievement. Family background, cultural capital, and college-bound peer groups had positive effects on track placement. Attending a segregated minority elementary school had a direct negative effect on high school track placement. As was true of achievement, the percentage of gifted students in a high school negatively influenced Black students’ track placement, while the school’s status as a magnet increased the likelihood that its students would be in the higher tracks. After controlling for students’ family background, gender, race, peer group influence, prior achievement, and other individual and school-level factors, we found that the greater the proportion of elementary school time students spent in segregated minority schools, the lower the likelihood that they would be placed in a collegebound track (see Table III). Given that, after prior achievement, track placement was the most important predictor of grades, this finding-that attending a segregated elementary school decreased students’ likelihood of being placed in a college-bound track-was substantively very important. It revealed how segregated elementary education had both a direct effect on achievement and an indirect effect on it through track placement.


At the time this study was conducted, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system continued to be racially segregated, and this segregation continued to have a negative effect on student achievement. Segregation occurred both among schools, in that almost one-third of schools were racially identifiable White or racially identifiable Black, and within schools where students were often resegregated by race as a result of ability grouping and tracking. Further, our study’s findings demonstrate the direct and indirect negative effects on achievement of attending segregated minority elementary schools. After controlling for individual background characteristics, we found the effects of attending segregated minority elementary schools to be cumulative-that is, the greater the proportion of a child’s education that took place in a segregated Black school, the lower were his or her grades and the less likely was the child to be placed in college-bound tracks in secondary school. Indeed, the effects of segregation at the secondary level were expressed primarily through tracking. Our findings suggest that because race is so highly connected to track level irrespective of a high school’s overall racial composition, the secondary school’s overall racial composition was less important for academic outcomes than the racial composition of the track in which a student was placed.

Family Background and Cultural Capital

The absence of a direct effect of family background on Black students’ academic achievement was consistent with the research that stresses the importance of school effects for Black students’ academic and attainment outcomes. Recent research suggests the important role schools play in determining the Black-White achievement gap (Guo & Van Wey, 1999; Hedges & Powell, 1999; Myerson, Rank, Raines, & Schnitzler, 1998; Phillips & Jencks, 1998). For instance, Hedges and Powell found that family background could at best explain about one-third of this gap. Grissmer, Kirby, Berends, and Williamson (1994) reported that in the 20 years between 1970 and 1990, African American gains on the NAEP far outstripped the improved SES of their families. Their findings were also consistent with those of other researchers who have demonstrated that SES does not affect African American school outcomes in the same way as it affects those for children of different racial backgrounds. Mickelson (1990) and Dornbusch, Ritter, and Steinberg (1991) found that traditional family background factors were not as good at predicting African American achievement patterns as they were for Whites. Nevertheless, some scholars and policy analysts discount the importance of school-level variables such as tracking and segregation for explaining the Black-White achievement and attainment gaps. They attribute the Black-White test gap, by and large, to family background differences among racial groups (Armor, 1995).

Our findings indicating that private music, art, or dance lessons (our measure of cultural capital) had a positive effect on achievement suggest that family background indicators that are typically used in social and educational research (i.e., mother’s and father’s educational and occupational attainment) may not capture some of the underlying processes that influence achievement. Specifically, families that exposed their children to elite culture through these lessons may have been providing them with educational resources that enabled these students to navigate the school’s official curriculum better than their comparable peers without such experiences. Because our indicator was a rather crude tool for capturing this nuanced and complex social construct, this interpretation of the relationship between our measure of cultural capital and student achievement is offered as a suggestion. This finding, however, requires further investigation.

Opportunities to Learn in Segregated Schools

This research suggests why segregated minority schools provide fewer opportunities to learn in CMS. As shown in Table II, the racial composition of CMS schools was highly correlated with human resources widely acknowledged as critical to student learning. Credentialed teachers who instruct in their field of training (defined as a college major or minor in a discipline) have been shown to be the single most important school resource linked to opportunities to learn (Darling-Hammond, 1987; Ingersoll, 1999; National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1997). However, highly educated and fully licensed teachers were less likely to be found at CMS schools with large numbers of Black students. Additionally, throughout CMS high schools, the percentages of poor students (measured by free /reduced-cost lunch eligibility) and non-English-speaking students were positively related to the percentage of Blacks in a school’s student body. Research has further shown that high concentrations of poor and ESL students in schools tend to diminish overall opportunities to learn because, among other factors such as peer effects, these students are especially needy and academically challenging and present additional duties for faculties and staff (Natriello, McDill, & Pallas, 1990). The greater burden on administrators and veteran faculty presented by a relatively inexperienced faculty and particularly challenging student bodies complicates and compromises the opportunities to learn offered to all students in segregated Black schools such as those in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system.10

Opportunities to Learn in Racially Identifiable Tracks

Within-school segregation, in the form of tracking of academic classes in secondary schools, also affected students’ opportunities to learn in CMS. Irrespective of the school’s racial composition, in every secondary school and at every grade level and in every core academic area, the lower the academic level of the class, the more likely the students were to be Black. Conversely, the higher the academic level, the more likely the students were to be White. Additionally, classroom instruction that develops higher-order thinking and problem solving skills as well as greater content coverage, and classroom social relations that develop independent, autonomous thinkers and actors well-suited for both democratic citizenship and professional and managerial occupations were most likely to be found in the more advanced classes and least likely to be found in lower level courses where drill and practice instructional techniques are often used.

In most CMS secondary schools, teachers assigned to teach in the higher level courses were more likely to be those with advanced degrees, full credentials, and reputations as excellent instructors.11 Though some lower level courses may have been taught by the better teachers, the highest tracks almost always were. Our interviews with CMS high school principals confirmed that the higher the track, the more likely that a student would be instructed by a fully licensed, experienced teacher who was teaching in his or her field of licensure. This pattern is consistent with the work of Finley (1984), who found similar patterns of allocation of teacher resources to higher and lower tracks. Given that Black students are infrequently enrolled in the higher-level courses, our findings suggest that CMS African American students systematically have had unequal access to the most rigorous and challenging opportunities to learn English, mathematics, science, and social studies.

Tracking, Segregation, and School Outcomes

Tracking, or within-school segregation, remains a fundamental source of inequality of educational opportunities for African American students in the CMS district. Our findings suggest that both the process of tracking and the outcomes of the practice were injurious to the district’s Black students. Specifically, the results of our regression analyses indicated that attending a segregated Black elementary school had a statistically significant negative effect on track placement even after controlling for family background and a host of other individual and school-level factors.

Given the importance of track placement for academic outcomes, it is important to interrogate the process by which track placements were made in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools. Overwhelmingly, CMS track placement processes in effect at the time of our study operated in ways that privilege White students while disadvantaging Blacks. Formally, secondary students’ track assignments depended upon their prior classroom performance, test scores, and recommendations from educators as well as students’ prior identification as gifted/talented or exceptional. Interview data from principals, counselors, and teachers suggest that students’ track assignments were the product of CMS system practices and policies that permitted parents, students, teachers, and administrators great flexibility and subjectivity in their decision making. In principle, flexibility and subjectivity in placement can be positive. They can also be negative forces if educators’ expectations and perceptions of certain children are influenced by factors such as the student’s race, social class, and gender. Moreover, both the formal and informal processes involved in the designation of students as gifted or exceptional learners and the processes of track assignment in CMS schools were highly susceptible to parental interventions. Middle-class White parents were more likely to intervene in gifted certification, track placement, and other school decisions than were the parents of less-privileged students. This claim is supported by the findings of significant effects for SES and cultural capital on track placement. It is also confirmed by data drawn from interviews with CMS principals, one of whom commented that a large number of the students designated as gifted– who were mostly White and middle-class-were more “politically gifted” than “academically gifted.”


Though tracking and desegregation are entwined in practice, their joint effects remain insufficiently examined by supporters and critics. Studies of the joint effects of tracking and desegregation over time on student outcomes within a single district remain rare. In other research, the effects of desegregation have been studied cross-sectionally, typically soon after programs were initiated. We examined the effects of desegregation over time throughout an entire district. Unlike our research, most previous studies have not measured the cumulative effects of exposure to segregated education on individual students’ school outcomes while controlling for other familial, individual, and school-level factors. Additionally, many other desegregation studies have not accounted for sample self-selection because they have not distinguished among natural (based on residence), voluntary, or mandatory desegregation programs. Given that the entire CMS district was under court order to desegregate when our study was being conducted, the problem of sample self-selection did not plague our research efforts. In these ways, our study extended and advanced much of the extensive literature on the effects of these two practices on the achievement of African American students.

Although the design of our study addressed many of the shortcomings found in prior studies, this research suffers from a number of its own limitations. For example, because our data were drawn from one district, our findings are not readily generalizable to other districts. Furthermore, our sample did not include special education students in the CMS system, most of whom were African American; their absence subsequently leads to an underestimation of the effects of segregation on academic achievement. Third, despite their importance, we could not examine the long-term effects of desegregation on students’ life-course outcomes such as educational and occupational attainment (Braddock & McPartland, 1988; Wells & Crain, 1996). Finally, our study did not permit an examination of a host of questions relative to the costs to African American neighborhoods and to students of busing children to desegregated schools outside their community (Shujaa, 1996).

In the present era, in the name of advancing equality of opportunity for all citizens, policies of school desegregation and tracking throughout the United States are being challenged from both the left and the right. Conservatives view mandatory desegregation as a threat to educational quality and individual rights (Armor, 1995; Parks, 1999; Welner, 2001). Persistent racial gaps in achievement have raised important questions in the minds of many Black parents, politicians, and educators about the relative costs and benefits of desegregated education as it is currently practiced across the nation (Hendrie, 1997; Mickelson & Ray, 1994; Shujaa, 1996). Some educators and researchers have proposed detracking public schools, yet privileged parents and educators unprepared to teach in detracked classrooms often resist such attempts (Oakes, Wells, Jones, & Datnow, 1997; Wells & Oakes, 1996.

Given the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district’s long histories of both desegregation and tracking, the evidence presented in this article suggests that critics of desegregation may be wrong when they claim that the policy of desegregation is not an effective strategy for improving the academic achievement of African American students. Indeed, our research reveals two important counterpoints to that judgment. First, very few African American students experienced genuinely desegregated education throughout their CMS careers because they either were educated in a segregated elementary school, or if they attended a racially balanced school, they were likely to be educated in a resegregated classroom at the elementary level and later in a segregated track within their high school. Second, those students who were educated in desegregated learning environments did better than their peers schooled in segregated ones. Our findings also suggest supporters of tracking are misguided in their advocacy of that practice. The evidence presented herein suggests that, at least for many African American students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools, secondary-school tracking undermined many of the potential benefits they likely would have received from a genuinely desegregated learning environment.

The frustrations of Black CMS students, parents, and the Black Charlotte-Mecklenburg community with respect to school desegregation-as evidenced by the reflective questioning or active abandonment of desegregation as a goal by some-are valid (Hendrie, 1997; Mickelson & Ray, 1994). As implemented in that district’s schools, desegregation has not brought the promise of equality of educational opportunities. Although our data indicate that African American students who experienced desegregated schooling had higher achievement than those Black students who did not, almost 30 years after Swann, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools continue to offer clearly segregated and inferior educational opportunities to many Black students. Consequently, any conclusions regarding the efficacy of desegregation as a strategy for advancing the equality of educational opportunities for African American children must await an as yet unrealized critical step: the genuine implementation of that strategy.

1Evidence presented in the 1997 Capacchione et al. v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools case indicated that racially identifiable tracking in the CMS system began at the about the same time desegregation efforts commenced. When Whites from a prosperous neighborhood desegregated the flagship high school in Charlotte’s Black community (West Charlotte High), the “open program” or higher track was instituted to create an environment that would encourage Whites to participate in desegregated education. Whites in the district needed to be assured that they would get the same quality of education they had received in their wealthy community’s local school (Myers Park High), not the run-of-the-mill culinary and cosmetology classes offered to Blacks at West Charlotte. The new open program was subsequently, in practice, restricted to Whites because the majority of Black students did not have the academic skills or course prerequisites for the more rigorous classes in that program. The informal system providing White privileged access to higher-level academic courses at West Charlotte continued through 1997. In that year, the school’s new African American principal, attempted to change West Charlotte’ course placement practices so that more Black students would enroll in AG classes. A major struggle ensued between the principal, Kenneth Simmons, and many veteran White teachers who taught the courses. They were joined by middle-class White parents who feared greater enrollment of Blacks in the top academic classes would result in the dumbing down of the curriculum (Hewitt, 2001; Interview with Keith Simmons, December 16,1997). As the struggle unfolded, Simmons was transferred to another position in the district.

2The designation of a school as desegregated or segregated typically is not based on an absolute standard; rather, such labels reflect an evaluation of the racial composition of a school relative to the overall racial composition of a school district, and (in the case of CMS), to a judicial standard set forth in case law. Furthermore, there is considerable variation in both the scholarly and legal literature in the usage of terms used to describe the racial composition of schools. We use the following labels: racially identifiable Black, racially identifiable White, and racially balanced (or desegregated) to describe the racial composition of the schools and classrooms we analyzed. Following CMS’s long-standing practice, we considered an elementary school whose Black proportion of the student population was greater than 15% above the school district’s Black proportion of the population as a racially identifiable Black school. A school with a Black proportion of the population less than 15% below the school district’s Black proportion of the population was deemed racially identifiable White. All other elementary schools are considered racially balanced or desegregated schools. Secondary schools that were majority Black were considered racially identifiable Black schools. Racially identifiable White secondary schools were those with 15% fewer Black students than the district’s Black proportion of the overall population. All other secondary schools were considered racially balanced or desegregated. We use the terms segregation and desegregation when describing and discussing the historical and contemporary social and educational significance of differences in schools’ racial compositions or when we interpret the results of our statistical analysis.

3Until very recently, CMS distinguished between only Black and White/Other students when determining if a school was racially balanced. This practice was consistent with the Swann decision. Given the presence of so few non-Black minority students in the district, categorizing Asian American, Hispanic American, and American Indian students along with Whites as “White/Other” was not an unreasonable practice for recordkeeping purposes, although it can be argued that doing so was culturally, socially, and educationally inappropriate.

4Shortly after filing the lawsuit, the Capacchione family moved from Charlotte to Torrance, California. The suit was continued on behalf of several other White CMS families who joined the lawsuit as plaintiff-intervenors. Even though the Capacchione family was not actively a part of the lawsuit after 1998, Judge Robert Potter (who as a private attorney had actively campaigned against busing and desegregation in Charlotte) awarded nominal damages (one dollar) to young Christina Capacchione to compensate her for the school system’s violation of her 14th Amendment rights when it used a race-conscious lottery to fill seats in the magnet school to which she applied. In November 1999, this damage award was overturned by a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. As of this writing, the White plaintiffs’ appeal of that decision is under consideration by the entire Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

5The first author served as an expert witness for the defendant, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

6Except for mathematics classes, CMS open schools do not group or track students.

7We are grateful to Michael Ross for providing us with these files.

8Every CMS school attended by each student in the sample population was coded for its racial composition in the year that the student attended the school (see footnote 2).

9We used OLS multiple regression analyses to estimate the effects of individual and school indicators on outcomes. Investigations of school outcomes that include individual and school-level indicators can be analyzed using multilevel modeling (Bryk & Raudenbush, 1992; Kreft & de Leeuw, 1998; Raudenbush & Bryk, 1986). The small number of high schools in our sample (11) and the small number of Blacks at several of these schools were among the reasons for our use of these techniques.

10Material resources were also important determinants of academic outcomes. Segregated Black schools in the CMS district were far less likely to have physical plants and infrastructures that optimized learning environments (Gardner, 1998).

11Mickelson conducted approximately 60 interviews with CMS principals and assistant principals, who confirmed the existence of a relationship between track level and teacher qualifications and quality.


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Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina-Charlotte; and Damien Heath, Department of Sociology, American University*

*An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on April 19, 1999. This research was supported by a grant to the first author from the National Science Foundation (RED-9550763). The second author received support from the Ronald McNair Foundation.

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