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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 10/22/2010

Economic school integration: A response to Valerie Strauss and Jerry Weast

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. He is the author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice," and he supervised the Century Foundation report, "Housing Policy is School Policy," written by Heather Schwartz.

In this post, Kahlenberg makes strong arguments in a response to separate concerns that Montgomery County Public Schools Supt. Jerry Weast and I raised about the report.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg
While most school reform efforts are aimed at trying to make high-poverty schools equal to middle-class schools, The Century Foundation released a report last Friday finding that there appears to be a much better way to improve the prospects of low-income students: Give them a chance to live in more advantaged neighborhoods and attend schools with wealthier classmates.

The report received some push-back from The Answer Sheet and from Jerry Weast, the school superintendent in Montgomery County, Maryland, the jurisdiction studied in the report. I’ll begin by sketching the major findings of the study and then respond to the criticisms.

Findings of the Study
The Century Foundation study, Housing Policy Is School Policy, conducted by Heather Schwartz of the RAND Corporation, compared two strategies being used by Montgomery County.

The first strategy – which is typical of most education reform – was to pour extra resources into about half of the district’s higher-poverty elementary schools designated as being part of the “red zone.” The extra dollars allowed for state of the art interventions such as reduced class sizes in grades K–3, extended learning time, and intensive teacher development.

The second strategy – economic integration – grew out of the county’s “inclusionary zoning” housing policy, dating back to the mid-1970s, which created an opportunity for the children of low-income families in public housing to attend more-affluent “green zone” schools in the county (which spend less per student than red zone schools).

Under the housing policy, developers of large subdivisions are required to set aside 12–15 percent of units for moderate- and low-income families, and the public housing authority can purchase up to one-third of the apartments.

Schwartz’s study traces the academic progress of 850 public housing students in red and green zone elementary schools between 2001 and 2007.

Which strategy worked better? The study finds that by the end of elementary school, students in public housing who attend more-affluent green zone schools through the inclusionary housing program cut the achievement gap with non-poor students in the district by one-half in math, and by one-third in reading. Moreover, despite the district’s extra investments in disadvantaged red zone schools, by the end of elementary school, children living in public housing who attended green zone schools scored 0.4 of a standard deviation higher in math than their public housing peers in red zone schools. This compares with a 0.1 “effect size” for many educational interventions.

What makes the findings particularly powerful is that families who apply for public housing in Montgomery County are randomly assigned to their homes by lottery – thus addressing the “self selection” effects that pollute much educational research.

We know, for example, that low-income students in more affluent schools score two years ahead of low-income students in high poverty schools on the 4th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in math. But researchers wondered to what extent that simply reflected the fact that the most motivated low-income families figure out how to get their kids into good middle-class schools. The Century Foundation study using random assignment suggests the benefits of living in a low-poverty neighborhood and attending a low-poverty school are significant and real.

The study didn’t explicitly address the effect of economic integration on middle-class students, but we know that Montgomery County’s non-poor students are among the best performing in the state and the nation. (Other research suggests no negative effects on middle-class student achievement, at least so long as 50% of the students in a school are middle-class.) About two-thirds of the positive effect on low-income student achievement came from attending middle-class schools, and one-third from living in middle-class neighborhoods.

The study, which was reported in a front-page Washington Post story by Stephanie McCrummen and Michael Birnbaum on Friday, drew somewhat critical reactions from two people I respect – the author of the Answer Sheet blog, Valerie Strauss, and Montgomery County schools superintendent Jerry Weast. I’m grateful that Strauss has graciously offered to provide me space to respond, which I do below, to both her and Dr. Weast.

Responding to Valerie Strauss
Strauss outlined two primary criticisms of the study: the reliance on test scores, and the focus on school poverty concentrations rather than poverty itself. She wrote:

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.” She goes on to cite data from a Casey Foundation study finding that the low-income blacks were only marginally more likely to read proficiently by fourth grade in moderate to high-income schools (17%) vs. high poverty schools (10%).

We’ll take each of these critiques in turn.

First, while standardized test scores don’t tell us everything we need to know, they are important, and when an intervention cuts the math test score gap between poor and non-poor students in half, we should take note. Moreover, while “test prep” may sometimes be responsible for test score increases, in the case of the socioeconomic integration policies in Montgomery County, this seems highly unlikely. High poverty schools notoriously drill students on test taking techniques, but that’s not the sort of preparation that tends to take place in the type of affluent schools where low-income students in Montgomery County saw their largest gains.

Second, The Century Foundation study did not suggest that “the school makes all the difference.” I don’t know of any serious education researcher who denies the powerful role of poverty and family home environment.

Indeed, The Century Foundation devotes substantial resources to issues of health care, housing, income inequality, and pre-K programs. Nor does the study itself suggest schools make “all the difference”; the power of home environment is reflected in the fact that half the math test score gap remained even after poor kids were given access to great public schools. But poverty concentrations also matter a great deal, and that’s what Montgomery County’s housing policy helped address – at the neighborhood and school level.

The Casey Foundation study of NAEP scores cited by Strauss indicates that school poverty level does matter some – low-income blacks were 7 percentage points more likely to be proficient in moderate to high-income schools than in low-income schools (and 12 percentage points more likely to be above basic).

Moreover, lifting students out of poverty was hardly a cure-all either: Moderate and high-income blacks in low-income schools were only 11 percentage points more likely to be proficient than low-income blacks in the same schools.

One important finding in The Century Foundation study is that the educational benefits of socioeconomic integration are significant, but they take time. Only after four years in the district did public housing children in low-poverty schools notably outperform public housing children in the district's higher-poverty schools. The Casey study, relying on NAEP data, does not measure the duration of time spent in low or high-income schools.

The big picture point, moreover, is that the focus on housing and the socioeconomic makeup of schools represents an enormous move in the direction Strauss advocates compared with almost every other education reform being discussed today.

In particular, socioeconomic integration broadens the lens considerably from the exclusive focus on teacher quality that dominates today’s discourse. Teachers are important, and socioeconomic integration will help connect low-income students and great teachers because today, research finds, excellent teachers avoid high poverty schools.

But socioeconomic integration recognizes that in addition to teachers, peers matter too, which is why it’s an advantage to be in a middle-class school, were classmates are, on average, more likely to be academically engaged and expect to go on to college. Likewise, it’s an advantage to be in a middle-class school because middle-class parents are more likely to be in a position to volunteer in class and to know how to hold school officials accountable.

The well-regarded Coleman Report of 1966, which continues to influence thinking on education, found that the number one predictor of academic achievement was the socioeconomic status of the family a child came from, and the number two predictor was the socioeconomic status of the school she attended. We need to move forward forcefully to tackle inequality on both fronts – something that the vast majority of education reforms fail to do today.

Responding to Jerry Weast
Montgomery County Schools Supt. Jerry Weast raised a different concern.

Interestingly, he did not challenge the substance of the report – that Montgomery’s housing policies allowing socioeconomic integration of neighborhoods and schools had a much bigger impact on raising low-income student achievement than school interventions such as reduced class size and enhanced professional development.

Indeed, in a joint appearance he and I made on NPR’s “Tell me More” with Michel Martin, Weast said economic integration “is the best model” for boosting achievement. His concern was logistical, given the numbers of kids in poverty, and possibly political, given middle-class resistance to integration. Weast told the Washington Post, “We chose to do the art of the possible.”

Dr. Weast’s suggestion that pursuing economic school integration is not possible in the real world would surprise superintendents in almost 80 school districts nationally that use socioeconomic status as a factor in deciding where students attend school.

Nationally, we remain a middle-class country, where a majority of students come from middle-income families, and many districts have sought to increase the number of low-income students who have access to good middle-class public schools. To be sure, socioeconomic school integration won’t work everywhere, but even in metropolitan areas where cities have very high concentrations of poverty, policymakers have created vibrant and popular inter-district choice programs that allow low-income urban students to attend more affluent suburban schools.

On the question of political resistance, we’ve learned a great deal about how to integrate schools since compulsory busing in Boston in the 1970s. Across the Charles River, in Cambridge, Mass., for example, every K-8 school is designated as a magnet school.

Families choose from among a variety of different pedagogical approaches, and the district honors choices with an eye to ensuring that all schools are within a percentage range of the district-wide proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Students in the district do very well academically, and the graduation rates of all groups– low-income, middle-class, black, Hispanic and white – are sky-high.

Across the country, socioeconomic integration – through housing and through schools – has been shown to fall squarely within the “art of the possible.” The research released last Friday gives all those who care about low-income students strong reason to redouble efforts to expand economic integration policies.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 22, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Equity, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  century foundation, economic integration, economic school integration, jerry weast, mcps, montgomery county, montgomery county public schools, richard kahlenberg, school choice, socioeconomic integregation, the answer sheet, valerie strauss  
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I would think that another factor impacting the families who benefit from inclusionary housing policies are all the ancillary community benefits that are missing in high-poverty communities:

(1) Safety - it is dangerous in and of itself to under-estimate the impact of community violence on a child's ability to engage in the classroom. When the child him/herself feels safe (because of less personal danger, because the family is safer, because there is not the constant threat of random or targeted violence), it frees an amazing amount of emotional and intellectual space to actually engage in education, and to find it meaningful to life outside of school.
(2) Access to community resources (e.g. well equipped libraries, parks, grocery stores, restaurants, etc) - for many kids living in overwhelmingly poor areas, these sorts of resources are sparse and/or are not as well maintained. And kids get the point - that they, or their community, is not worth the investment.
(3) Different View of Opportunities - in areas where there is a high concentration of poverty, even though parents may be instilling all the values they can into their children about the value of education/hard work/etc., when a child sees almost 30% of their neighbors not going to work, when everyone they know has a family member who has been killed before the age of 25 and/or a relative in jail (access to justice and disparity of treatment in the justice system between the poor and everyone else is a whole other can of worms), when there is a pervasive sense of hopelessness within the community, seeing the relevance in education rather than basic survival is difficult, at best.

Inclusionary housing also addresses a whole host of other community/location-related issues that impact child performance (e.g. the un-refuted impact noise has on children's ability to learn, and the decibel levels in low-income neighborhoods which are disproportionately louder, more industrial, etc. than their middle-class counterparts; or the fact that hazardous waste disposal, trash transfer stations and warehouse districts are disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods).

Teachers are crucial, but they are not the only crucial component. Whereas a well-resourced child can survive a mediocre or bad teacher, a fabulous teacher cannot always reach a child who is so mired in the outside factors relating to poverty that they can't see their way out.

Posted by: 4LOM | October 22, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

This article provided a lot of new insights for me.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 23, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

I live in St. Louis, MO, where both charter schools and voluntary desegregation (busing) to affluent schools are both parts of the educational landscape. I've looked at the state test scores for both groups (I agree with Valerie that state test scores have potential problems, but they're all we've got that's actually disaggregated) and it's interesting to note that disadvantaged groups -- in our case blacks who are on free/reduced lunch -- who are bused out to affluent suburban schools generally do better than their charter counterparts.

I don't think this sort of immersion is a cure-all -- these bused kids still lag far behind their affluent white classmates and I'm told they can bring some difficult behavioral and social baggage -- but it seems like putting a minority of poor kids in a majority of middle and upper class kids seems to apply a bit of upward pull to those poor kids. The author is also right to note that this isn't some one-year miracle... it takes several years to see real change from these kids, something our current "reformers" don't seem to like to wait around for.

Superior to busing, in my opinion, is what this author describes, since bused kids are going to feel more like outsiders, not to mention those long early-morning and late-afternoon commutes. The author's points are well-reasoned and I appreciate how 1) he acknowledges the study's limitations (wish more reformers would do that!) and 2) acknowledges how the study relates to important out of school factors (something else I wish reformers would do!).

Posted by: joshofstl | October 23, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

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