Module 3 - What causes school segregation
To understand the causes of the segregation of schools it is necessary to explore the interaction of different dimensions that generate inequalities in education. Some of the causes of segregation are internal to the education system, while others are external, and, in order to be handled, require political action beyond education policy.
Residential segregation, high levels of poverty in specific neighbourhoods, and migration waves are important factors that lead to school segregation, which can only be addressed by developing integrated actions based on education reforms, urban development policies (planning and housing strategies), social policies and cultural actions to facilitate social integration.
However, other causes of school segregation may be identified in the characteristics of education systems, or in specific education policies that may favour polarization and an unbalanced distribution of underprivileged or highly privileged students in schools. Early tracking, the presence of a large number of private schools, and the capacity of schools to select their students are aspects that correlate with levels of school segregation (Alegre and Ferrer, 2010). Patterns of school choice, the definition of catchment areas, levels of shared responsibilities to enrol students at risk and inspection systems to avoid illegal student selection, are factors that can be decisive in understanding how school segregation is produced and reproduced.
Factors affecting school segregation differ largely accordingly to different contexts. In contemporary cities, the interaction between external and internal factors produces unique scenarios of school segregation, which produce inequalities of a different nature and intensity.
Objectives of the module: This module aims to provide information and discussions on the wide causes of school segregation, both internal to the education system (school choice systems, school admission policies, tracking systems and the implementation of educational markets) as well as external to the mentioned system (residential segregation).
Outline of the module: This module is structured in five units, all related to the mentioned objectives.
Unit 3.1. Residential segregation and school segregation. In this section we will explore the relationship between these two forms of segregation. Residential segregation affects school segregation as much as school segregation impacts on families’ residential patterns and choices, especially among the middle class.
Unit 3.2. School choice. In this section we will explore the implications of regulations that allow families to make individual choices about which educational institution their child will attend.
Unit 3.3. School admission policies. These policies determine the prioritization criteria, sits reservation for students with special needs and ultimately who is offered a place in a specific school or program. The more choice parents and students have, the more marked is the role of admissions criteria in defining school segregation.
Unit 3.4. Education market. Market-oriented policies have often been promoted by public-private partnership. They include voucher programs, school choice, privatization, cost-recovering mechanisms, and the promotion of competition among schools. Supporters affirm that the introduction of some of those market mechanisms to education increase the effectiveness and efficiency of schools; in contrast, detractors argue that market dynamics damage public schools and increase inequity in education.
Unit 3.5. Early tracking. Tracking is the grouping of students into classes by ability/prior achievements and organizing curriculum by its level of difficulty. A major concern is that early tracking may segregate students on the basis of family background and/or academic ability.
Balancing School Choice and Equity: An International Perspective Based on Pisa
UNIT 3.1. Residential segregation and school segregation
Residential patterns are crucial for understanding school segregation. Where children live identifies to a large extent where they go to school, and residential patterns can be identified as one of the main causal forces of school segregation. However, the relationship between modes of residential segregation and school segregation is not linear, but characterised by a dual causal relationship (Bonal and Bellei, 2018).
Residential segregation affects school segregation as much as school segregation may affect families’ residential patterns and choices, especially among the middle class.
In educational contexts characterised by predominant public school system and strict school catchment areas, with one public school per district and very few private alternatives, the large majority of the pupils attend the school of their residential neighbourhood (Bernelius, Vaattovaara, 2016). In this case, school segregation tends to be a clear reflection of residential patterns and residential mobility behaviour, and it is also often informed by school choice considerations.
Moving to specific neighbourhoods to be close to the ‘right’ schools is a common phenomenon in many contexts, and is driven by class-based considerations of avoidance and peer-group seeking (Boterman, 2012). Upper-class families are most likely to actively select neighbourhoods considered as privileged choices for families.
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Both socio-economic and ethnic composition of neighbourhoods, as well as the built environment (street safety, infrastructures for sport, culture, aggregation, green spaces, school building, backyards) are scrutinized when decisions to move are made. Cheshire and Sheppard (2004) have demonstrated that when school allocation policies are tied solely on residential address, schools can even be observed to have a direct effect on the housing prices in the catchment areas leading to the most desired public schools: in other words, school choices are made through housing choices.
On the contrary, in contexts with a strong degree of choice – where parents can select a school (public or private) outside of their residential neighbourhood, strategies that do not involve moving into the vicinity of a desired school may include travelling greater distances from home to school. The avoidance of the local school by middle class families may lead to rising levels of school segregation in the neighbourhood. On the other hand, increasing middle class presence in the city as a whole, and the maturing of gentrification in some areas, may relax the perception of middle class parents (Boterman, 2020). The growing number of middle class children creates a greater social mix in neighbourhoods, higher test scores in schools, and leads to higher attendance of neighbourhood schools, thus reducing overall levels of segregation.
UNIT 3.2. School choice
School choice refers to regulations that allow families to make individual choices about which educational institution their child will participate in (EACEA/Eurydice/European Commission, 2020). At one end of the school selection spectrum, there are education systems where there is no option and children are expected to attend the school closest to their home. At the other end, families are free to choose any school (public or private) in the education system. However, most education systems fall between these extremes, offering families more or less freedom to choose a suitable school.
The degree of choice depends on the conditions established by the education authorities, but also on a number of other factors. These include the number and types of schools available in the education system; information available to parents about their rights and the choices available; policies on school admissions in operation; and other policies relating, for example, to funding, support for education, and transport. One of the main arguments for offering school choice is that parents have the right to choose the best education for their children. Therefore, increased school quality would result in better educational performance.
School choice proponents also emphasize that it provides equal opportunities for all students, as they can select an education appropriate to their personal interests and desires along with their families.
From an equity point of view, it is believed that socio-economically disadvantaged students are freed from residence restrictions by being able to select schools outside their own (often disadvantaged) community, as parents may prefer to choose high-performing schools. Furthermore, the behaviour of parents and students often indicates the tendency to select schools that have peers from a socio-economically similar or more favourable context than neighbourhood school peers (Wouter, P., van Gent, M., & Ostendorf, W. (2009). Disentangling neighbourhood problems: Area-based interventions in Western European cities. Urban Research & Practice, 2(1), 53–67).
Many academics, however, contest these improvements in effectiveness and fairness that are expected to result from the choice of education. They stress that not all parents and students can practice school choice to the same degree, which can lead to the creaming of high-capacity and socio-economically advantaged students by certain schools. This typically results in low-capacity and socio-economically disadvantaged students being academically and socially separated. Research evidence suggests that not all parents and students actively choose when faced with the option of selecting a school, and those who do so appear to belong to advantaged families,
in terms of economic, social and cultural capital, who have more knowledge on the available choices. Choice only marginally improves opportunities for students facing educational, residential, transport and information limitations (Echazarra and Radinger, 2019). For instance, for students living in rural areas, where there is one school or alternative schools that are far away, in larger settlements, school choice can be very small or non-existent. Similarly, students living in extreme socio-economic circumstances may not have the means to choose to study outside their local neighbourhood, either temporarily or financially.
Municipal and other state authorities can create programs in response to disparities in access to education that offer parents of school-age children the opportunity to choose schools that would otherwise be difficult to attend. Growing parental choice is the main aim of all of those services. Voucher programmes in the US, and choice-based programmes in the UK are all mainly aimed at creating greater possibilities for parents, often of lower social classes and ethnic minorities, to choose a school, thereby supposedly assuaging existing social inequalities (Burgess et al., 2015).
However, lifting some of the financial and spatial constraints for the school choice of low-income families has not been found to be very effective in order to limit the school segregation of the most vulnerable children. As Wilson & Bridge (2019) demonstrate, allocation mechanisms for schools are contingent on the local interplay of admission policies, school choice dynamics and its geography, but also on the different ability of parents to navigate the entire educational landscape.
UNIT 3.3. School admission policies
School admission policies are closely linked to school choice systems. Although school choice policies decide the degree to which parents and students can express a preference for a particular school, admission policies determine who is ultimately offered a place in a specific school or program. The more choice parents and students have (whether this is due to the range and number of schools on offer, or the policies governing the choice of school), the more marked is the role of admissions criteria and procedures in how students are distributed across different schools.
In principle, schools can admit all applicants. This can be done when there are fewer applicants than available places in the school, or in other, probably rare cases, when the school is able to increase its capacity to meet the demand for places. When schools have a limited number of places and a higher number of applicants, there is competition for school places, and some sort of selection must be made. School admissions can be ‘blind,’ meaning that no student attributes are taken into consideration for admission and no requirements for admission are set. Via lotteries or similar blind procedures, for example, students who apply to a school are accepted at random. In contrast, student admissions may be based on criteria related to certain student characteristics. Important elements are socioeconomic criteria, proximity of residence or order of registration. The combination of the different admissions criteria used depends on the objectives/aims of the admissions policy (Merry and Arum, 2018). Research on the impact of non-academic admissions criteria (for example “sits reservation” for children with a specific socio-economic background or special needs) on equity is not conclusive. PISA data signal overall minor differences in the performance of students enrolled in schools that apply admissions based on religious affiliation, preference for family members or proximity to residence. In contrast, using socio-economic criteria in the admissions process to oversubscribed schools can improve equality of opportunity for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds; and due to peer effects, it can also have a positive impact on their performance (crossref).
Although not very often used for primary school selection in Europe, another possible criteria of admission is student achievement or ability. An argument for academically selective school admissions policies is that they are claimed to support the best match between students and schools, and thus, increase the efficiency of education in terms of educational performance. Best match could be related, for example, to student interest (specialist schools), ability or aptitude, or teachers (it is easier for teachers to manage classes with similar abilities, interests, etc.). Defenders of academically selective systems also argue that meritocratic systems improve opportunities for talented socio-economically disadvantaged students to become socially mobile (Coe et al., 2008). Nevertheless, academic selection poses several challenges. In systems where differences in academic performance are great between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students, selection based on academic achievement may increase differences, especially if selection takes place at an early age. Some researchers point to this phenomenon as selection based on unearned advantages or disadvantages (Mason, 2016; Merry and Arum, 2018). They are unearned as performance differences at an early age are primarily related to parents’ socio-economic background, and not (or less often) to students’ own abilities.
Two particular mechanisms have received a high share of the attention: the Boston mechanism and the Deferred Acceptance mechanism. Both mechanisms collect preference reports from the students, and then assign seats to students in rounds (Abdulkadiroglu et al. 2006).
Under the classic Boston mechanism (BM), students first apply to their favorite school. If a school has sufficient capacity to accommodate all applications in the first round, all applications are accepted. Otherwise, the school accepts applications following some priority order until its capacity is exhausted, and then it rejects all remaining applications. Students who were rejected in the first round apply to their second-choice school in the second round. The process repeats until all students have received a school, or all schools have reached capacity. The main motivation for letting students choose the schools through a school choice mechanism is supposed to be student welfare. Popular measures for student welfare are the number of students who received their top choice or one of their top-3 choices. The mechanism owes much of its popularity to the intuitive way in which it attempts to maximize these measures of student welfare. However, BM is susceptible to strategic manipulation. Concerns about the manipulability of the Boston mechanism have led to its abandonment in some cities in the US and around the world.
To address problems associated with manipulability, the Deferred Acceptance mechanism (DA) has been proposed as an alternative. Under DA, students also apply to schools in rounds. However, the acceptance at any school is tentative rather than final. If in any subsequent round a student applies to a school with no free capacity, she/he is not automatically rejected. Instead, she/he will be accepted at that school if another student who has been previously tentatively accepted at the same school has lower priority. In this case, the tentative acceptance of a student with lowest priority is revoked and this student enters the next round of the application process. On the one hand, DA makes truthful reporting a dominant strategy for students. On the other hand, given the true preferences, BM appears to produce assignments with better student welfare.
UNIT 3.4. Educational market
A crucial mechanism in the reproduction of school segregation dynamics is the development of market-oriented educational policies. These measures are currently being discussed and applied in many countries, especially as an alternative to more traditional school improvement initiatives within the public sector. Market-oriented policies have not necessarily enhanced direct privatization, and have often been promoted by public-private partnership.
They include voucher programs, school choice, privatization, cost-recovering mechanisms, and the promotion of competition among schools (OECD, 2010).
While some education systems are close to what could be understood as ‘pure markets’ (Chile, for instance), others – defined as “quasi market models” – allow for choice under conditions of gratuity (e.g., the Netherlands), and others restrict choice by using catchment areas to ensure proximity and equal opportunities (e.g., Spain) (Zancajo and Bonal , 2020).
Supporters affirm that the introduction of some of those market mechanisms to education may increase the effectiveness and efficiency of schools; in contrast, detractors predict that market dynamics will damage public schools and increase inequity in education, without certain gains in education quality (Belfield and Levin 2009; Witte 2009).
What has been proven by various investigations is that market-oriented educational policies often lead to higher socio-economic segregation (SES) (Persell 2000). In relation to private schools, several authors reported a high degree of stratification by type of school ownership.
One example is Chile, where low-SES students tend to attend public schools, middle-SES students tend to attend voucher private schools, and high-SES students tend to attend non-subsidized private schools (García-Huidobro and Bellei 2003; González, Mizala, and Romaguera 2004; Elacqua 2007). There is one important factor linking the presence of private schools to SES school segregation. The selection of students by the schools may be operated through highly unregulated admission policies.
Schools have powerful incentives for selecting children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and with better academic performance, since the ‘costs’ of teaching those children (both monetary and non-monetary) are lower.
Studies showing a positive effect of privatisation and pro-market policies on school segregation are instead almost non-existent (Musset, 2012), while some studies indicate that the adoption of privatisation and market policies in education has not affected school segregation significantly. For example, Taylor (2001) concluded that pro-market reforms adopted in England did not lead to a significant variation in the level of school segregation.
UNIT 3.5. Early tracking
Tracking is the grouping of students into classes by ability/prior achievements and organizing curriculum by its level of difficulty. Track assignments are based on successful completion of prerequisite courses, prior achievements, and teacher recommendations. Tracking represents a very controversial issue: supporters claim that students at different levels of ability require different types of instruction; opponents have argued that high achieving students serve as role models for less able, struggling students.
A major concern is that tracking is used to segregate students on the basis of family background and academic ability (EACEA, 2019).
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For this reason, tracking is supposed to be another crucial social mechanism of school segregation. International comparisons, based on the PISA, have highlighted a close relationship between early tracking and school segregation (Murat, 2012; Alegre and Ferrer, 2010; Jenckins et al., 2008). Countries such as Austria, Belgium or Germany have higher levels of school segregation than countries with comprehensive education systems (particularly the Nordic countries).
Social differences between tracks are greater than differences within tracks (Jenckins et al., 2008), while socio-economic background variables have a stronger effect on education inequalities in less comprehensive education systems (Duru‐Bellat et al., 2004). The differences in educational and social value among tracks largely explain their different social composition and the higher levels of socio-economic or ethnic segregation in less valued tracks.
The effect of the age at which students are first assigned to a differentiated track of education has been the subject of many empirical investigations. Many studies have found that the earlier tracking is introduced, the wider the learning differences between students (Hanushek and Wößmann, 2006; OECD, 2012). Early tracking is found to both widen the gap between low and high performers, and increase the impact of socio-economic background on performance. If past academic achievement is in large part related to parental background, students may be placed in low tracks because of the socio-economic status of their family. Since teaching follows a hierarchical sequence, exposing students to increasingly difficult skills and complex knowledge, early tracking can eventually lock in students with low socio-economic background in low tracks and induce progressive segregation. This may get worse if low tracks attract less experienced teachers and hinders the motivation and aspiration of students with lower expectations; and if parents’ intervention into tracking decision is more common with highly educated parents pushing for high track placements. The evidence is so clear that the OECD itself has pointed out the negative effects of early tracking and low permeability between tracks on the equity of the education systems.