Education Student Assignment Policy
Eric A. Houck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0043


Student assignment is a topic of study in educational policy that focuses on the processes by which students are allocated into schools and classrooms. In this subfield of educational policy studies, scholars also study the results from such decisions. Student assignment polices have been influenced historically by federal litigation but remain local decisions in American public school governance. As a result, student assignment policies are highly localized in scope and sensitive to broader district contexts. Historically, student assignment policies have been made with regard to geography and transportation efficiency: students attended schools that were closest to their residences. This changed in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, when the US Supreme Court ruled that willful assignment of African American students into separate and inferior schools was unconstitutional. From that time forward, student assignment policies in many districts in the American South have been made with regard to student body racial composition. Beginning in the mid-1990s numerous districts began petitioning for a designation of unitary status, indicating that any student segregation was not related to prior discriminatory practices of the past, or confronting legal challenges on the use of race as a factor in determining a child’s school assignment. These district-led initiatives were given even more importance by the US Supreme Court’s ruling that race could not be used as a primary criterion in student assignment decisions, effectively reversing critical aspects of the Brown ruling. As a result of these developments, districts have begun to look at criteria other than student racial composition to create student body diversity within schools. Some of these approaches have included widening school attendance zones in order to draw from a more diverse population of students, using student socioeconomic status or level of academic performance in assignment policies to create diversity within schools along academic and economic dimensions, or leveraging alternate school types, such as magnet schools, to draw wealthier parents from suburbs into majority-minority urban schools. One important topic seeks to understand the politics of creating student assignment polices. Another topic focuses on primary outcomes, such as academic performance, socialization, and future economic earnings. A third topic examines secondary outcomes, such as teacher and leader quality associated with the student body composition of a school, that are assumed to be correlated with increased student-level academic productivity.

General Overviews

Unlike other well-defined policy arenas in education, such as curriculum, finance, supervision, and law, student assignment policies draw from a variety of approaches and disciplines. In fact it may be safe to assert that there is no well-defined and codified canon of scholarship around the policy issue of student assignment. Further, the fact that student assignment policies are created locally yet are subject to adjudication in state and federal courts requires educators and policymakers seeking to understand student assignment policies to approach the topic with a foundation in educational politics and policymaking. Therefore this section reviews important works in the fields of politics of education and educational policy studies. Wirt and Kirst 2005 provides a cogent review of the role of politics and political players in local, state, and federal educational policymaking. Ravitch 1985 provides an overview of the failure of many school reform policies during the decades leading up to the gestation of the current standards-based reform agenda. The new direction in education and education reform is charted in Clune 1994, noting a shift from equity-oriented policies to outcome-oriented policies in school finance, but the piece speaks clearly to the broad expanse of educational reform. This perspective is articulated in Fuhrman and Elmore 2004, which confronts one of the key challenges of the outcome-oriented standards-based reform movement. The larger context for these trends is provided in Cooper, et al. 2004, which reviews key theories and trends in educational policymaking, and in Guthrie and Schuermann 2009, which reviews trends and issues in educational leadership. Roza 2010 provides details of the resource allocation inequities at the school level with some discussion of the manner in which student assignment policies impact school-level resource allocation. Two historical pieces provide context for consideration of the links between the desegregation movements of the 1970s and current student assignment policies. Formisano 2004 and Cecelski 1994 provide interesting perspectives on resistance to desegregation as practiced in the 1970s by white blue-collar Bostonians and rural African American southerners, respectively.

  • Cecelski, D. S. 1994. Along freedom road: Hyde County, North Carolina, and the fate of black schools in the South. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

    DOI: 10.5149/uncp/9780807844373

    Traces efforts of the African American community of a rural North Carolina county to resist efforts to desegregate their community school.

  • Clune, W. H. 1994. The shift from equity to adequacy in school finance. Educational Policy 8.4: 376–394.

    DOI: 10.1177/0895904894008004002

    An analytic essay charting the broad movement in educational policymaking from a focus on inputs and equity to a focus on outcomes and adequacy of systems.

  • Cooper, B. S., L. D. Fusarelli, and E. V. Randall. 2004. Better policies, better schools: Theories and applications. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    A text used to introduce key concepts in the policymaking process and their role in educational policymaking specifically.

  • Formisano, R. P. 2004. Boston against busing: Race, class, and ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

    Historical book that traces white resistance to school integration in Boston in the early 1970s.

  • Fuhrman, Susan H., and Richard F. Elmore, eds. 2004. Redesigning accountability systems for education. New York: Teachers College Press.

    A series of essays addressing the manner in which accountability policies and structures can be reconfigured to meet the challenges of standards-based reform.

  • Guthrie, J. W., and P. J. Schuermann. 2009. Successful school leadership: Planning, politics, performance, and power. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    A textbook outlining challenges and strategies for modern educational leaders.

  • Ravitch, D. 1985. The troubled crusade: American education, 1945–1980. New York: Basic Books.

    Historical piece outlining perceived failures of educational policy to sustain excellence in a period of equity.

  • Roza, M. 2010. Educational economics: Where do school funds go? Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

    A consideration of how federal and state policies interact with the unintended consequence of systematically underfunding high-needs students.

  • Wirt, F., and M. Kirst. 2005. Political dynamics of American education. 3d ed. Richmond, CA: McCutchan.

    Provides an overview of political interest groups and the use of power in educational policymaking at the local, state, and national levels.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.