If Americans truly want to improve the academic success and life chances of poor children, we should start by making it less likely that kids from low-income families are segregated into schools with extremely high rates of poverty.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, makes this argument in the current issue of American Educator. And he further argues that schools can adopt policies that promote demographic balance, that the current stark separation of rich and poor – what the writer Jonathan Kozol called “apartheid schooling in America” – isn’t inevitable.
Kahlenberg has been beating the drum for socioeconomic integration for a long time, going back at least to his 2001 book “All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice.”
“In the last decade,” he writes in the American Educator article, “the research has become even more convincing.” Students from low-income families do better if they attend middle-class schools where it’s more likely that their fellow students are academically engaged, parents are active in school affairs and eager to hold schools accountable, and teachers have high expectations for students.
The article is adapted from Kahlenberg’s introduction to “The Future of School Integration,” published this year by the Century Foundation. Among the studies he cites:
— A study in Montgomery County, Md., that tracked the performance of poor children whose families were randomly assigned to public housing in high-poverty or low-poverty schools. Students in low-poverty schools fared better, even though the local district spent more money on high-poverty schools.
— A cost-benefit analysis that estimated a 5-to-1 return on investment for money spent to integrate schools, with the gains coming from public and private benefits of increased graduation rates.
And the good news, Kahlenberg says, is that socioeconomic integration isn’t a zero-sum game. Kids from upper- and middle-income families don’t suffer as a result of attending economically diverse schools, as long as the poverty rate isn’t too high.
Yet it has always been an uphill battle to make the case for this education reform strategy. Conservatives and liberals both have their reasons for accepting segregated schools. Kahlenberg says it’s politically safer to advocate “separate but equal” high-quality schools, even though no one has shown how to make high-poverty schools effective at anything close to a universal level.
So instead of an approach that’s supported by research, we get charter schools, vouchers, school turnaround and test-based evaluation of teachers – all labeled “reform.”
Kahlenberg takes heart from the growing number of school districts that have made socioeconomic balance a priority, including such well known examples as Jefferson County, Ky., and Wake County, N.C. It hasn’t always been politically easy, as the article makes clear. But in those districts, coalitions of educators, parents, civil rights groups and business organizations have supported the approach.
Kahlenberg favors achieving balance with magnet schools and “controlled choice,” in which parents can choose their children’s schools, subject to restrictions that prevent any school from having too high a level of poverty. That’s probably the best approach in large cities where housing and neighborhood patterns reflect sharp economic divides.
In some smaller cities – Bloomington, Ind., for example – socioeconomic segregation of schools results less from housing patterns than from school board decisions. But that’s a topic for another post.