For North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System, maintaining diverse schools in the midst of rapid growth has been a concern. The Board’s 2010 decision to end the district’s socioeconomic school-assignment policy has been highly controversial and has garnered national attention.
Recognizing an opportunity to provide some insight into the problem, Morgan’s M. Monique McMillian, Ph.D. — an associate professor for Teacher Education and Professional Development in the School of Education and Urban Studies — spearheaded new research that explored school assignment policies. The result was the publication in Urban Education journal of a new study: “Can Class-Based Substitute for Race-Based Student Assignment Plans? Evidence From Wake County, North Carolina.”
Dr. McMillian, a native of North Carolina and an educational psychologist by trade, served as lead author of the study, with contributions from fellow researchers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research team analyzed school data from 1992 to 2009 that included demographic profiles for the schools and students, as well as a decade of total-year test scores from students in grades three through eight. The data covered five North Carolina school districts in all: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Cumberland County, Guilford County, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County and Wake.
“There was increasing local and national focus on what was happening in Wake County with its school diversity, and we had an interest in investigating, from a standpoint of empirical data analysis, what worked and what did not,” said Dr. McMillian. “What we learned, while intriguing, is preliminary. Follow-up research is still needed.”
In an attempt to dissect the issue, the team focused on intra-district and inter-district school composition and achievement patterns: Phase One) Wake County Public Schools’ income-based policy versus its race-based school assignments, and Phase Two) Wake County Public Schools income-based school assignments versus the non-diversity policies of other large North Carolina districts. Under the income-based policy, no school should have more than 40 percent of students receiving free-or-reduced lunch or more than 25 percent of students performing below grade level. The thought was that this mixture of students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds would organically produce a more diverse population.
The results of the analysis were eye-opening but not conclusive. According to Dr. McMillian’s research, the findings of the Phase One analysis revealed a slightly more segregated student body during the income-based period, but overall student achievement increased. However, with the Phase Two analysis, the Wake County schools proved to be more integrated, and overall student achievement was still higher. These findings suggest that income-based school assignments policies might be a good proxy for race-based policies.
“A primary take-away from what we learned is that school systems may want to continue exploring how the use of diversity-based policies (income- or racial-focused) can achieve integration and address opportunity gaps as well as achievement gaps,” Dr. McMillian said. “We also should bear in mind that the evidence we shared is merely tentative, and the findings in our study are largely descriptive. There may be other contributing factors.”
The Wake County Board of Education last implemented an income-based school assignment policy in 2010 but has since considered a priority plan of action that seeks to reestablish socioeconomic diversity.
Dr. McMillian has been an associate professor at Morgan for the past two and a half years.