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