In one of Boston’s defining moments, a judge in 1974 ordered that the city’s schools be desegregated by busing white and Black students to campuses outside their neighborhoods. The aim was not just racial integration — it was to give all students the same access to a high-quality education.
Nearly 50 years later, despite the changed demographics of the district, Boston public school students are still being bused. But what if busing has little educational upside today?
That’s the provocative question raised by a new study that tracked Boston sixth-and ninth-grade students over about a decade. The research conducted by MIT’s Blueprint Labs found that students who were bused to schools outside of their neighborhoods saw no academic benefit.
“Choice today works to integrate schools . . . but it doesn’t produce any measurable impacts on learning outcomes or college enrollment,” said Josh Angrist, a Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist and one of the unpublished study’s authors.
Not everyone is convinced by the research — which looks narrowly at test scores and college enrollment — but for others, it serves as further evidence that it may be time for Boston to consider abandoning the busing system that has students crisscross the city every day.
“Some of the binary disparities that existed 50 years ago may no longer apply,” said Ted Landsmark, the civil rights attorney and educator who became famous during Boston’s busing crisis when he was assaulted by an antibusing protester wielding an American flag.
“If the current investment in busing were to be reapplied toward enhancing the resources available to inner city young people, Boston students could achieve learning outcomes equivalent to those found outside their neighborhoods,” Landsmark said.
The school assignment system aims to give all students access to high-quality schools, regardless of neighborhood, but has been criticized for the uncertainty it creates and for the cost: according to a new report, Boston spends over $140 million on busing 21,500 students each day, although that includes the requirement that the district bus charter and private school students as well.
In an attempt to figure out what the district is getting for that money, the researchers examined test scores as well as college attendance for students entering sixth and ninth grades in Boston from 2002 to 2013, focusing on the BPS school assignment system. (The research did not look at Metco students, Boston residents who attend schools in the suburbs.)
Boston students are assigned to schools based on a combination of their preferences, district priorities, and random chance. Students are given random numbers that act as tie-breakers if needed.
The researchers knew that students who attend schools outside their neighborhoods have superior academic outcomes to students who do not. But they wondered whether hidden factors, such as family motivation and resources, played a role in producing better outcomes, rather than simply the school location.
So the researchers compared students who attended distant schools with their peers who applied for the same schools but did not get assigned to them. When they did so, the effect of busing disappeared. On average, the students who applied for distant schools did better academically than their classmates, whether they were accepted or not.
But others dispute the paper’s findings.
Barbara Fields, former head of the district’s Office of Equity and a Citizens for Public Schools board member, argues that the political power and wealth some parents bring to their children’s schools result in disparities between schools in white neighborhoods and schools in Black neighborhoods, and busing helps to level the playing field.
Fields said the district has rebuilt the dual school system that existed prior to the introduction of busing in the 1970s, where white and wealthy students had access to better schools than everyone else.
“It’s still worth the trip until you make it so students don’t have to take a bus ride to access quality instruction,” Fields said.
Fields took issue with the study’s focus on test scores and argued there is inherent value to integration, irrespective of the costs or benefits to test scores. (While the district is composed mostly of students of color, it would be more segregated without busing.)
Eugenia Corbo, a member of the parents group Quality Education for Every Student, also disagreed with the focus on test scores, noting that the analysis leaves out various benefits families might seek in other neighborhoods, such as smaller class sizes, better social and emotional experiences, or particular extracurricular activities.
Corbo was unconvinced by a section in the study that argues the money currently going to transportation instead could go to improving education in neighborhood schools.
”I’d be very hesitant to switch to neighborhood schools without a guarantee that the benefits would go to the high-needs kids,” Corbo said. “And it’s tough to believe any such commitment anyway, because a commitment they make today might change when there’s a new mayor.”
Parag Pathak, another of the paper’s coauthors, agreed that one of the study’s weaknesses is that it does not measure other potential outcomes of desegregation, such as reducing bigotry.
“I wish we had some kind of way to measure those kinds of things quantitatively,” Pathak said.
The district’s school assignment system has changed since the period examined in the study, and Pathak was involved in the research underlying the shift to the current system. Corbo said the study is out of date due to the change. But the district’s traditional high schools are treated the same way in both versions, and Angrist said he did not think the changes affect the study’s findings.
Fields argued that the authors have a conflict of interest because of Pathak’s involvement with the current system’s development; Pathak said he never endorsed the new system, instead presenting options to the district and describing the trade-offs between systems.
Daniel O’Brien, a Northeastern University professor who has analyzed the effects of the current assignment system, called the research paper’s findings striking.
“You’d like to believe these things are having an impact,” O’Brien said. “There’s certainly something to be said that racial integration itself is a priority, so it’s not to say busing is not useful in any regard, but it’s important to be clear about what it is or is not doing for our kids.”
In the old system, the district was divided into three zones with students choosing within their zone; in today’s “home-based assignment policy,” students pick from a custom basket of schools including those closest to their home, citywide schools, and additional “high quality schools,” defined using the district’s school tiers, which group schools from Tier 1, best, to Tier 4, worst.
O’Brien’s own analysis with Harvard professor Nancy Hill found that the switch to the new system reduced access of Black and Latino students to “high quality schools,” in terms of the district’s school tiers. The implication of the two findings, O’Brien noted, would be that the Tier 1 schools are not actually better — the tiers instead reflect the level of family resources their students bring to them.
The study’s findings differ from earlier research, which found that desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s produced a dramatic increase in school quality for Black students. The researchers said that suggests it is no longer the case that in a district like Boston, Black students systematically attend worse schools than white students.
“Teacher pay, class size, and term length used to be very different between the Black and white school systems,” Angrist said. “Mostly today, the funding follows the kids.”
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.