An education reform strategy that research supports

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.

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6 thoughts on “An education reform strategy that research supports

  1. I’m a big proponent of this research. I’ve seen it work time and again.

    But how practical is it? Take a district like IPS where over 80%of students are economically disadvantaged. How do you achieve balance in that type of environment?

    Here’s an idea for high poverty schools. Achieve balance within a school by scheduling according to student academic level.

    Where effective balance isn’t possible, replicate the more orderly environment of suburban schools by maintaining class sizes as small as possible. For some schools, this could mean class sizes of no more than ten to fifteen tops. Focus on classes that provide enrichment and the arts rather than just drill on test prep. Enrichment is the key. Create a stimulating environment that is visually appealing and offer a variety of extracurricular opportunities.

    It’s a well kept secret that “reforming” urban schools is possible to some extent, but it’s going to cost a lot of money to hire extra staff and create an enriching school climate.

    • It’s certainly true that this would be a challenge in IPS – and equally so in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond. Kahlenberg envisions interdistrict choice – choice across district lines – as a way of addressing this issue. He says it’s being done in Boston and Milwaukee, but I’m not familiar with those examples. I’m not sure exactly how you’d do this in practice; apparently with magnet schools that would draw middle-class kids to schools in low-income neighborhoods, and with financial incentives for middle-class schools to accept transfer students from low-income schools.

      It’s maybe worth nothing that, in Indiana, we have interdistrict choice as a result of having the state take over school general fund costs.
      But in practice, I think schools still get to decide whether they accept transfer students or not, and possibly which ones.

      With regard to Indy, you could argue that things went wrong when the city adopted Unigov but not “Uni-schools.” I would love for someone to explain the politics that went into keeping township schools open in Marion County when they were eliminated in much of the state. Or maybe Judge Dillin should have mandated a school merger instead of busing to achieve racial integration, back in the days when racial integration wasn’t unconstitutional.

      Of course, by now, a lot of the bigger Indy township schools are fairly high-poverty too, so a county-wide choice/magnet program with SES consideration wouldn’t create all that much balance. But it could help. The FRL rate for students in all Marion County public schools is 65 percent. That’s not much different from the rate in Louisville, 62 percent, which Kahlenberg cites as a positive example.

      And of course, if you think of interdistrict to mean across county lines, you open up very different possibilities.

      I suppose, in my perfect world, reducing poverty levels in public schools by just a little (possibly combined with other changes, more attractive magnet programs, incentives, etc.) might induce parents who are now sending their kids to private schools to give public education another look. But I may be dreaming. An awful of middle-class parents seem to be worried that their children, in the words of Stephen Colbert, will “go to school and get poor on them.”

      I do support the idea of putting more resources into high-poverty schools. But it would have to be a lot more resources, and even then, I don’t think it will always be effective. We’ve tried that in Bloomington – more funding and smaller class sizes for the school that has 90 percent FRL – but it didn’t keep the school from getting an F this year. Anyway, the current legislature seems to be going the opposite direction on school funding, shifting funds to suburban schools on account of their growth.

  2. For years I have been very troubled by the extreme socioeconomic segregation of students in Bloomington. We seem to pride ourselves on being a progressive community of educated, socially conscious individuals and organizations, yet we ignore the research about how to truly impact our “failing” schools. The last redistrict in Bloomington was a prime example–it was very very ugly. Opponents argued that neighborhood schools were better and that transportation costs would be too high. The underlying motivations seem to be much different however. I hope the community can come together to affect change around this very important issue.

  3. Good point. Something that can be done better is in which public schools are administered as private schools. Low income students in New York were placed in such schools. They then went on to compete with some of the best schools. This happens because the goverment has a small role in what goes on so various agendas from goverment agancies do not conflict. We can also limit the teacher’s union;s role because it now seems almost as if they are no longer thinking of the students. You should check my blog out, I talk quite a bit about this. Great blog though.

  4. Pingback: Should we accept school segregation by social class? | School Matters

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