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Posted at 11:35 AM ET, 10/15/2010

The limits of Moco schools' economic integration study

By Valerie Strauss

There are big limits to the study released today showing that several hundred low-income students who went to school in low-poverty schools in Montgomery County did better on standardized math tests than kids who went to high-poverty schools:

1) Scores on standardized tests don’t actually show that kids are really learning anything. A rise in scores could mean better test prep.

2) The suggestion in the results of this study is that the school makes all the difference, and there is substantial research that shows that things are more complicated.

You can read about the report in this story by my colleagues Michael Birnbaum and Stephanie McCrummen.

It tracked the performance of 858 elementary students in public housing scattered across Montgomery from 2001 to 2007. About half the students ended up in schools where less than 20 percent of students qualified for subsidized meals, and most of the others went to schools where up to 60 percent of the students were poor and where the county had directed extra resources.

After seven years, the children in the lower-poverty schools performed 8 percentage points higher on standardized math tests than peers at higher-poverty schools. Students in these schools scored modestly higher on reading tests, but those results were not statistically significant.

But consider the report released recently by the Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization that advocates for policies to help poor children and families, titled “Early Warning!: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” the latest in a series of “Kids Count” analyses.

The authors take the 2009 reading test results released in March from the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- considered to be the gold standard in K-12 standardized assessment -- and break down the numbers to show how well different groups of disadvantaged students are doing:

  • 90 percent of low-income black students in high-poverty schools were not reading at grade level by fourth grade.

  • 83 percent of poor black students in schools with moderate to low levels of poverty did not reach the goal.

  • 88 percent of Hispanic students in high-poverty schools missed the mark.

  • 82 percent of Hispanic students in schools with low or moderate rates of families living in poverty did not read at grade level.

It’s not JUST the school. That’s not to say that schools don’t matter. Of course they do. Kids who attend schools that are well-resourced, well-managed and well-staffed are bound to perform better than kids who attend schools that aren’t, and, the more troubled schools in our country are almost always found in high-poverty areas.

And, of course, integration of neighborhoods and schools should be seen as rooted in the country’s core values

But the stubborn fact remains that without attacking the roots of poverty, we will never close the stubborn achievement gap. Putting poor kids in middle-class schools will help some of them, and that’s a good thing, but the real answer is alleviating poverty.

David Berliner, regent’s professor emeritus at Arizona State University, a prominent researcher and educational psychologist, has studied how achievement is affected by poverty-induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children bring to school.

These are six out-of-school factors Berliner has identified that are common among the poor and that affect how children learn: (1) low birth weight and nongenetic prenatal influences; (2) inadequate medical, dental and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics.

A change in school Zip Code can address some of these issues, but not all of them.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and other like-minded schools chiefs like to say that it is just an “excuse.” They ignore the education and social science research showing the strong link between family income and standardized test scores.

Meanwhile, new Census Bureau figures show that one in seven Americans live at or below the poverty line, defined as an annual income for a family of four of $22,000.

We can build zillions of charter schools and give standardized tests to kids every day of the week and fire tons of teachers and close a lot of traditional public schools.

Our problems won’t go away in education because we still will be ignoring the obvious.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 15, 2010; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  Equity, Research, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  casey foundation, david berliner, economic integration, high-poverty schools, low-income families, michelle rhee, moco schools, montgomery county schools, poverty, standardized tests  
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Valerie- this is where I think studying the Harlem School Zone can help. They attempt to address these out of school factors with seemingly positive results. I'm not a charter school fixes all problems guy- but there are some interesting things going on there that deserve attention- such as providing insurance and food pantries.

Posted by: mmccabe4724 | October 15, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

You are correct that poverty is the dominant factor in education, and all social opportunity for that matter. The positive I take from the study, just as one could take from the historical effect of forced bussing for integration after Brown v. Board, is that integration forces the society to invest in ALL schools, not just those in their neighborhood. The period of forced integration is the only time when the achievement gap narrowed. When we chose to abandon integrated schools for neighborhood (read segregated) schools in the 1980's the achievement gap began to grow again. It's no coincidence that America's greatest success occurred during the 25 years following WWII. Brown v. Board integrated schools. Strong unions ensured livable wages and created the largest middle class the world has ever known. Marginal tax rate of 70% or more ensured the nation’s wealth became a resource for the nation, not just a few, and enabled investments in education, science (NASA), infrastructure and necessary services. As a society we CHOSE to abandon the commonweal in favor of unregulated self-interest and all that collapsed. The ed-reform movement is popular with corporate America because it distracts from the policy choices that caused the problem and those that could alleviate it.

Posted by: mcstowy | October 15, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

The positive thing that I take from the Montgomery County situation is that it sheds light on a couple of things.
1. More teacher stability (experience) at these wealthier schools.
2. More experienced administrators.

The current reformers always imply that urban school teachers are lazy and this is the problem. However, high poverty schools have high turn over rates for teachers. Thus, less stability.

The fact that low income kids do well in schools that do not have a "churning" philosophy going on should tell us something.

It would appear that it is illogical to adapt a "fire the staff" mentality when the evidence shows that it is better to have a stable staff.

Someone should publish the numbers of Montgomery County teachers who used to work in DC.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 15, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Something that has been bugging me about this list....what specifically does David Berliner include amongst the "nongenetic prenatal influences?" I use the term "specifically" loosely since the list of influences would indeed be seemingly endless, and furthermore, the remaining 5 categories on his list can affect the nongenetic prenatal influences as well. But, still, I am curious. Plus, does David Berliner distinguish between low birth weight (LBW) and small for gestational age (SGA), or is he counting SGA within the LBW category or within the nongenetic prenatal influences?

I am also curious how he actually views food insecurity, which is certainly a problem, but should be distinguished from poor nutrition in a discussion of school performance - an examination of adequate caloric intake, protein, servings of vegetables and fruits (non-juice), etc.

Thank you. And yes, thank you David Berliner for what your work in this area.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 15, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Nice, level-headed comments. Integration is not the whole answer, but it seems to help. On the other hand, have you taken a look at the concentrated racism and hate in the comment to the main story? It sounds like a documentary about the civil rights era. "If we let "them" in our schools, neighborhood, etc. crime will go up, property values will go down, the schools will go to He11." Of course, I'm sure most of those posts came from people who supported Rhee for all she was doing to "help" poor kids in DCPS.

Posted by: mcstowy | October 15, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

"Scores on standardized tests don’t actually show that kids are really learning anything."

You've repeated this mantra in one form or another for so long that I'm sure you actually believe it. But, scores on standardized tests are the primary measuring stick we have for determining what our students are learning.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 15, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Of course, we cannot ignore the impact of class and race on education anymore than we can ignore it in politics or economics. But the notion that quality education cannot be achieved until poverty is eliminated is more dangerous than helpful. In fact, Rhee based on teacher-only argument on the premise that teachers are the only factor we can change. She is wrong there. We can change what we teach, and how we teach it. We can also change the role parents can play in shaping the quality of education in their own zip code. Transplanting a handful of poor kids into richer schools is not a solution we can rely upon. To read about my take on this, based on my experiences as both a teacher and a parent, please visit my blog entry "Try to Rhee-member" at

Posted by: dcproud1 | October 16, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

Valerie, try this as an analogy: test scores are like simple diagnostic tests in medecine: about at the level of pulse rate and blood pressure. They don't tell the whole story, but they are not irrelevant either. Across populations, they correlate well with other, more fine-grained assessments of what students have learned.

Posted by: jane100000 | October 16, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

Furthermore, I hope someone can give me an answer on this one: In the Harlem Children's Zone experiment, it appears that the "poverty-alleviating" factors (social services, on-site health care, etc)don't have a discernible effect on children's school performance, while the school-related factors do. So what are the specific measures that the "end poverty first" school of thought would propose to help children escape poverty? how would those measures be different than the ones in place in HCZ? I certainly agree that a more compressed income scale in this country would be a first step, if there were a way to accomplish that, but what else would be effective?

Posted by: jane100000 | October 16, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

"1) Scores on standardized tests don’t actually show that kids are really learning anything. A rise in scores could mean better test prep."

Oh, please. Or, what Patrick said.

"But the stubborn fact remains that without attacking the roots of poverty, we will never close the stubborn achievement gap. "

Something else you keep repeating that isn't true. The achievement gap is so large that white kids living in poverty outscore black students who don't live in poverty, and tie with Hispanic kids of same.

California STAR tests
Blacks that are NOT economically disadvantaged scored 307, on average, on the Algebra test.

Hispanics that are NOT economically disadvantaged scored 316, on average, on the Algebra test.

Whites that ARE economically disadvantaged scored a 315 on the same test.

So enough of the "poverty is the chief cause of the achievement gap". For reasons we haven't determined, race is the chief cause of the achievement gap. Poverty, within race, explains most of the rest.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | October 16, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Cal_Lanier, "For reasons we haven't determined, race is the chief cause of the achievement gap."

Several considerations:

Marriage rates among Blacks:

Breastfeeding rates among Blacks:

LBW among Whites and Blacks in relation to income:

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 16, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

I think the weaknesses of standardized tests needs to be explained to politicians and the mainstream (non-educational) media who play them up to be something they aren't: a good yardstick of learning.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 17, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

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