We all know Brown v Board of Education. In 1954, the Supreme Court case ruled unanimously that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. This ruling paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Equal access to education nationwide solidified. Despite the order, the Civil Rights Act, and nearly six decades passing, segregation in schools still exists today.
It is illegal to force students to attend a particular school based on the color of their skin. Still, the U.S. has structurally racist systems that have created neighborhoods with complex and invisible barriers to access. Limited access to opportunity and income for Black and Brown families combine to keep kids of these families in schools that are underfunded and often racially segregated.
There are segregated schools throughout the country. More than half of all students in the U.S. today attend school districts with high racial concentrations, with above 75% of the student body all of the same race. About 40% of Black students attend schools where 90-100% of students are either Black or people of color. Since the 1950s, only 24% of schools have gotten away from these extremes and have a diverse student body.
The schools that students attend and their fellow students’ demographics directly affect cognitive ability. Prior research has shown that schooling differences for Black students compared to White students are associated with worse cognitive aging for Black individuals. These studies mainly looked at dementia rates and race; they didn’t address whether race and school segregation affected cognitive decline.
Rachel Peterson and colleagues wanted to know if the age when students changed from a segregated school to an integrated school was associated with cognitive abilities later in life. They looked at 699 Black individuals ages 50 and older who transitioned to an integrated school between first and twelfth grade. They compared the cognitive function of these individuals against people who only attended segregated schools. They looked at three measures: semantic memory (recall, retention, and use of factual information), executive function (ability to control behavior), and verbal episodic memory (personal memories situated in time and space).
The researchers found that attending only segregated schools, attending segregated schools until sixth grade, or attending segregated schools from sixth through twelfth grade could be associated with late-life cognitive decline.
The researchers found that attending only segregated schools, attending segregated schools until sixth grade, or attending segregated schools from sixth through twelfth grade could be associated with late-life cognitive decline. Participants who only attended integrated schools showed significantly better semantic memory than participants who only attended segregated schools. Further, students who transitioned between first and sixth grade from a majority Black segregated school to an integrated school had better executive functioning and semantic memory. Lastly, the researchers found no significant difference in cognitive abilities between participants who transitioned after sixth grade and those who only attended segregated schools. Students who remain in school longer have been shown in other works to have lower rates of dementia and other cognitive diseases as older adults. Longer schooling at integrated schools leads to better cognitive aging.
Peterson and colleagues note that students experience psychosocial stress by going through the integration process, being bullied, having only White teachers, and entering a possibly hostile classroom environment. This is especially true for students from the 1950s-1970s. Students of color transitioning to more diverse schools should have less of a psychological toll on the students today when the faculty and staff are more diverse, but that remains to be seen.
A generation ago, even spending a brief time in integrated schools at a young age was associated with better cognitive aging. Today, schools have been integrated by law for 70 years. But academic segregation remains despite the numerous benefits of integrating schools, especially at the elementary and middle school levels. Not only would integration reduce racial achievement gaps, but it would result in better cognitive aging over a lifetime.
Photo via Getty Images