Beginning in 1969, a court decision, motivated by a lack of racial integration in schools, led to students being shipped to schools in other neighborhoods. As part of a political campaign against Richard Nixon, his political opposition latched onto this forced busing and school desegregation to show they cared about minorities more. The trade-off was that kids were no longer in their own neighborhoods and felt like pawns in a culture war.

In some areas, this forced busing did not end until 2001 but it was commonly regarded as a disaster and ended quickly in most districts - parents who had moved to neighborhoods for a school had children shipped elsewhere and young kids were actually made to feel more segregated and ostracized. In the 2000s, a bipartisan educational amendment called No Child Left Behind caused test scores for minorities to go up considerably - but during that time, and even in a housing boom, people still tended to stay segregated. Sociologists say that is because people prefer to be around people like them - most people feel more comfortable when they are in the majority.

Yet comfort may not be best for education. A new paper by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute says that black first grade students in primarily minority neighborhood schools show smaller gains in reading — but the students' backgrounds are not the cause of the differences.

According to the Center for Civil Rights, the United States is far more racially and ethnically diverse but segregation is still common. To better understand the impact on student performance, education scholars looked at nearly 4,000 first graders in public schools nationwide.

"When the minority composition of schools was 75% or more, the growth in African-American first graders' reading skills lagged behind their African-American peers in more integrated schools," said Kirsten Kainz, director of statistics at the Institute and a research associate professor in the School of Education. "This alone wasn't news. Numerous studies have shown how the performance of African American students suffers in segregated schools."

There are many confounding factors in that. Is reading lower because parents don't read? Too much TV? Innate differences in individuals? Lower quality teachers? Investigating the reasons behind differences in reading development or other learning outcomes is difficult.

"The economic, social, and academic backgrounds of the students who attend segregated schools could be the cause of differences in achievement—and not aspects of the segregated settings themselves," said Kainz. The challenge, she explained, is in disentangling one group of potential causes from the other.

In order to mitigate confounding and separate student characteristics from aspects of segregated public schools, Kainz used propensity score matching to compare reading growth in segregated and non-segregated schools, while also trying to account for numerous differences in the students' backgrounds. When the analysis revealed that African American students displayed less growth in reading during first grade in segregated schools than in other public schools, Kainz concluded the primary reason was the schools themselves rather than students.

Perhaps. Eliminating confounding factors is always going to create a debate.

"When similar groups of first graders do better in one type of school than another, then it must be some aspect of the school that accounts for the difference," Kainz said. "This study goes further than any other in being able to say, 'It's not the kids.'"

Kainz acknowledges zeroing in on the precise issues for African-American students in segregated settings remains challenging. 

"It may be that segregated schools affect African-American students in particular because these schools have fewer resources to devote to high-quality instruction, experience more teacher turnover, and are more likely to employ novice teachers," Kainz explained. "In addition, the communities surrounding segregated schools may not have as many supports for reading development outside of the school day and year."

Although segregated neighborhoods and communities persist, Kainz said some local measures can help to bring more integrated schools, such as care in residential planning—including the location and concentration of low-income housing—and in drawing attendance lines for schools. "Many communities have direct local control over processes that can ensure they don't inadvertently promote segregation," she said.

"Researchers and educators, in partnership, must identify the ways and means to promote adequate learning for all students," added Kainz. "Sixty years after the Brown decision, we still have plenty of work ahead of us."