The Context of Learning: New York City’s Educational Disparity

“Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rests the cornerstones of freedom, democracy, and sustainable human development.” – Kofi Annan


The environment that a student grows up in can have a large impact on their life, from their health outcomes to their educational opportunities. A student in New York City is much more likely to attend a racially segregated school than a diverse one. Today in New York City, almost 850 public schools are categorized as the city’s lease diverse schools, while only 100 meet the criteria for the city’s most diverse (NYU Metro Center, 2017). This is largely due to the segregation of neighborhoods and regulated attendance laws that determine which school a student must attend based on the location of residence. The following explores the correlation between the history of policy segregated neighborhoods and its contemporary impact on a New York City student’s access to a diverse educational experience.

The discourse around neighborhood segregation largely faults de facto segregation, segregation caused by development in private practices. This manifests in concepts like “white flight,” the movement of discriminative white families away from quickly diversifying neighborhoods, or banks whose unjust use of loans and mortgages is known as “redlining.” Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law acknowledges this as only a “small part of the truth, submerged by a far more important one: until the last quarter of the twentieth century, racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments defined where whites and African Americans should live.” The intentional act of a government to segregate is defined by courts as de jure segregation. Due to the complex form of the enduring effects of de jure segregation, it is often mistaken as de facto and therefore cannot demand a constitutionally mandated solution and remains active.

The 1938 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map of Brooklyn. Credit National Archives and Records Administration, Mapping Inequality.

The challenge of recognizing and addressing the power structures shaping segregated neighborhoods results in severe civil inequity. This often impedes access to adequate health care, housing, and a quality education, to name a few, hindering student development, specifically those from underserved communities.  The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools released a report in October of 2017 titled Separate and Unequal: A Comparison of Student Outcomes in New York City’s Most and Least Diverse Schools. The report shows the achievement gap between the students who attend the nearly 850 least diverse schools and those who attend the 100 most diverse. The study begins with the geographical mapping of the two categories: “Over 200 of the City’s least diverse schools were in Brooklyn, 68 were in Queens, 164 were in Manhattan, 332 in the Bronx, and 51 were in Staten Island. Queens had the highest number of the most diverse schools (55), followed by Brooklyn (24).” These numbers reflect the neighborhoods that host the schools, and through the careful examination of each history of the neighborhood and the policies that have impacted it, maps the relation to its current status.

The research shows that as students grew older, the achievement gap became more pronounced. Two grades are examined in the 2017 study, third and eighth. In third grade the students who attend segregated schools produce equally proficient test scores than those who attend diverse schools. However, by eighth grade the students in segregated schools have fallen behind their peers in a diverse educational setting. C.G. Jung (1954) published research in The Development of the Personality, Vol 17; Psychology and Education, showing that the learning of a younger child is heavily influenced by their family and their community. The learning of third grade students may be less impacted by segregated schools because they can benefit from a climate of similarities, whereas older students begin to benefit from diversity, leading to the disconnect in test scores.

The science of student success in regards to racial diversity is incredibly complex, however imperative to address. The impact of the government in neighborhood segregation has had lasting effects and has led to unequal access to the innate human right to a quality education.


Hannah Calderwood  | Co-Manager of COLOR Club, Public Color