I have several papers trying to better understand how school segregation has been changing over time and how it relates to educational inequality.

Fiel, Jeremy E. (2013). “Decomposing School Resegregation: Social Closure, Racial Imbalance, and Racial Isolation.” American Sociological Review 78(5):828-848.
Since around 1990, minority students have attended schools with fewer white students, reversing two decades of increasing intergroup exposure. This paper showed: (1) this was because the size of the minority population grew relative  to that of whites, NOT because of increasing segregation between groups; but (2) school segregation between racial groups is still high, and the most consequential type is that between school districts in the same area.

Fiel, Jeremy E. (2015). “Closing Ranks: Closure, Status Competition, and School Segregation.” American Journal of Sociology 121(1):126-170.
This study portrays school segregation as a particular instance of a general phenomenon made famous in sociology by Max Weber: status group competition. The idea is that under certain conditions, members of different racial or ethnic categories behave as members of groups in competition for school-based status and resources, and this competition is regulated by education policies and institutions. I relate this to recent changes in school segregation by showing that school segregation has been highest when and where (1) racial and ethnic boundaries are most salient, (2) school systems provide more opportunities for families to choose (compete for) schools, (3) school systems permit more inequality in resources between their schools (increasing incentives to compete for better-resourced schools), and (4) these three characteristics cooccur. Oh, and (5) this was true not just for segregation between white and non-white minority groups, but also between different non-white minority groups.

Hanselman, Paul M., and Jeremy E. Fiel. (2017). “School Opportunity Hoarding? Racial Segregation and Access to High Growth Schools.” Social Forces 95(3):1077-1104.
If school segregation is a form of status competition, then we would expect higher-status racial/ethnic groups to end up in better schools than lower-status groups. After all, this is one of the motivations for segregation: excluding outsiders to hoard opportunities for one’s own group. This is what most people assume to happen, and it is backed up by prior research. But prior research measures school quality based on how much students know (achievement levels), which is problematic because much of this learning occurred outside of school. We used California data to measure school quality based on how much students learned year-to-year (achievement growth). We found a substantial amount of inequality in achievement growth across schools, but very little of it was related to students’ race/ethnicity or poverty status. Either members of high-status groups are doing a poor job recognizing the best schools, school segregation is driven mainly by non-academic concerns, or school systems are compensating schools serving poor/minority populations to prevent segregation from exacerbating inequality.

Fiel, Jeremy E., and Yongjun Zhang. (2018). “Three Dimensions of Change in School Segregation: A Grade-Period-Cohort Analysis.” Demography 55(1):33-58.
There are 3 ways to think about how social phenomena change: changes as people age, changes at time passes, and changes as old cohorts are replaced with new ones. We decomposed changes in school segregation since the late 1990s along these lines. The biggest changes are those that occur irrespective of time/cohort as students age: segregation drops substantially as students transition from elementary to middle school, and drops further as they transition from middle school to high school. After accounting for these age-based changes, black-white segregation did not change much, while Hispanic-white segregation declined modestly. In both cases, there were declines over time that were offset by increases across cohorts. In other words, while there were widespread changes that led students to be more evenly distributed to schools by race/ethnicity, there is something about more recent cohorts of students that makes them more prone to segregation than older cohorts. We hope to better explain these changes in future research.

Fiel, Jeremy E. (2019) “Education Governance as a Macrosocial Influence on School Segregation.” Pp. 751-67 in R. Langer and T. Brüsemeister (Ed.), Handbuch Educational Governance Theorien(Handbook of Theories and Theory Building in Educational Governance). Springer VS.
This chapter is a bit more theoretical than my previous work. It ponders the ways that educational governance influences school segregation. I portray governance systems as macro-level structures that shape the opportunity structure of segregation. Any governance system provides a set of opportunities and incentives that actors navigate when forming education policies, and that individuals navigate when choosing schools. Among other things, I argue that although decentralized governance systems—such as those with high levels of political fragmentation and local autonomy—are often suspected to exacerbate segregation and inequality, this is not necessarily true. Decentralization is conducive to variation in segregation regimes across school systems, and to change over time; hence it provides opportunities for extremely low and high segregation. Centralized governance, in contrast, provides more uniform and stable arrangements over place and time, but these arrangements could support high or low levels of segregation.

Fiel, Jeremy E., and Yongjun Zhang (*equal authorship). (2019). “With All Deliberate Speed: The Reversal of Court-Ordered School Desegregation, 1970-2013.” American Journal of Sociology 124(6):1685-1719.
Here, Yongjun and I were interested in explaining why court orders for school districts to desegregate have (and have not) been dismissed over time. We collected data on all districts under a court mandate to desegregate and examined a range of hypotheses about why districts might remain under court order. After accounting for federal policy changes and districts’ variable success in desegregating schools, several ostensibly race-neutral organizational (competition with other districts), financial (receiving state funds to implement desegregation), and political (constituencies favorable to educational investment) incentives appear to influence the survival of desegregation orders. Racial competition dynamics related to local racial composition also seem to play a role, as desegregation orders have been most vulnerable when and where black population shares surpass a tipping point of about forty percent. We hope this study will add more nuance to portrayals of school “resegregation” and will help inform efforts to design robust civil rights policies.

Fiel, Jeremy E. (2021). “Relational Segregation: A Structural View of Categorical Relations.” Sociological Theory. (free pre-print version HERE).
This is a general theoretical article that aims to outline a “relational” perspective of segregation—one that emphasizes the interconnectedness of actors in a variety of social relations. I use historical examples from medieval religious relations and U.S. race relations along with contemporary segregation research to make several points. One major point is that we should more deeply examine the segregation of social relations in a wide variety of activities (familial, political, economic, etc.). Another is that segregation is not a specific thing with regular causes or effects. It is an inherently contradictory (seemingly natural yet unstable) structural arrangement that evolves as actors struggle for control. How it evolves and affects social behavior depends on what the actors involved are doing and what they bring to those relations.

The article also challenges commonsense ideas about how segregation is driven by members of social categories who prefer to be separate or who occupy different roles. Social categories and roles themselves, individuals’ categorical identities, and people’s preferences emerge alongside—and in part because of—structures of relations in social activities. I also discuss the dynamic interplay between culture and segregation, arguing that cultural and structural boundaries do not necessarily reinforce each other but often undermine (or compensate for) each other. One specific source of weakness in segregation is the inevitability that different types of relations are segregated to different degrees, opening the possibility that relations of one type disrupt those of other types. I argue that institutions play a critical role in channeling people’s behavior as they navigate different domains of activity with distinct (and possibly contradictory) relational structures.

Fiel, Jeremy E. (2022). “Opportunity Seeking across Segregated Schools: Unintended Effects of Automatic Admission Policies on High School Segregation.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. (free pre-print version HERE).
This article examines unintended effects of Automatic Admissions Policies (AAPs, a.k.a. “percent plans”). AAPs leverage high school racial segregation to attempt to diversity state university admissions by guaranteeing students above a class rank threshold (e.g., top 10%) in their high school admission to state universities. People may respond by “gaming” the policy, trying to attend less academically competitive high schools. Given stereotypes about predominantly minority schools being less competitive, white students may be more prone to attend those schools. This could reduce segregation but also undermine the policies’ ability to reduce racial inequality of opportunity.

I use synthetic cohort analyses to examine how racial segregation changed across high schools, with data for two types of comparison groups: high schools from other states with comparable pre-policy segregation trends, and elementary schools within and outside the treatment states. I find evidence that AAPs in Texas and California led to declines in segregation within school districts, but likely not on a scale to undermine the policy. In both states the declines occurred in districts that were highly segregated prior to the policies. There were large declines in TX, but they were concentrated in small non-metropolitan districts; the declines were modest in CA. This suggests a complex relationship between segregation and equality of opportunity, and highlights the need to attend to the ways students sort across schools in response to egalitarian policies.

Thanks to the National Academy of Education and Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for their support on this project!