Why growing concentrated poverty dooms school reform

Until very recently, policymakers ignored the effect that concentrated poverty has on student achievement. Here’s a look at why more attention must be paid to the problem, written by Greg Kaufmann, who reports on poverty for the Nation, and Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education. This appeared on The Nation’s website.

By Greg Kaufmann and Elaine Weiss

Researchers know a lot about how various factors associated with income level affect a child’s learning: parents’ educational attainment; how parents read to, play with, and respond to their children; the quality of early care and early education; access to consistent physical and mental health services and healthy food. Poor children’s limited access to these fundamentals accounts for a good chunk of the achievement gap, which is why conceiving of it instead as an opportunity gap makes a lot more sense.

But we rarely discuss the impact of concentrated poverty—and of racial and socioeconomic segregation—on student achievement. James Coleman’s widely cited 1966 report “Equality of Educational Opportunity” has drawn substantial attention to the influence of family socioeconomic status on a child’s academic achievement. However, as Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, notes

Until very recently, the second finding, about the importance of reducing concentrations of school poverty, has been consciously ignored by policymakers, despite publication of study after study that confirmed Coleman’s findings.

It’s time that we stop ignoring it. The past few decades have seen increasing income polarization, with the top 1 percent reaping the vast majority of societal gains, the middle class shrinking, and those at the bottom losing ground. As a result, concentrated poverty is more potent and relevant an issue than ever. Add to that the fact that 2012 marked the 25th anniversary of William Julius Wilson’s groundbreaking book,”The Truly Disadvantaged,” and we have every reason to reexamine the life realities, impacts, and policy implications of segregation and entrenched, concentrated U.S. poverty.

Wilson’s research explains how a combination of northward migration among African-American families, disproportionate loss of jobs in the industries in which they worked, and the mass exodus of middle-class black families from city centers to suburbs, created an underclass comprised of the truly disadvantaged: concentrated ghettos of poor, unemployed, under-educated families with dim school and life prospects, largely headed by single black women. Although Wilson’s work spurred multiple policy fields and thousands of studies on concentrated poverty, the reality for those experiencing it remains tragically unchanged. The number and proportion of families living in concentrated poverty dropped briefly during the boom years of the 1990s, but it has since increased again and even spread further:

[T]he problem of poverty concentration is growing, and the type of district grappling with the issue is no longer confined to those in urban areas. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Condition of Education, 47 percent of elementary students now attend majority low-income schools, and the proportion of high-poverty schools has grown from 34 percent in 1999 to 47 percent in 2008. A 2010 Brookings Institution report, “The Suburbanization of Poverty,” found that in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, more poor people live in large suburbs than in their primary cities. (Kahlenberg p.3)

This trend frustrates efforts to improve educational achievement among low-income and minority students. Concentrated poverty plays a key role in explaining why poor white students perform better on tests, on average, than African-American students with similar family incomes. Not only are white children much less likely than their black peers to live in poverty (12.5 percent versus 37 percent), among those who are poor, only 12 percent of white children live in concentrated poverty, while nearly half of poor African-American children do. Black students are thus much more likely to attend schools in which most of their classmates are also poor. It isn’t hard to imagine the impact of this divide: black students disproportionately lack peers whose parents went to college and who take for granted that they will go; their schools and the pathways to them are more likely to be dangerous; their PTAs are comprised of parents with little political power to get the school system to meet their demands; and too many parents are overwhelmed by factors that render help with homework a major challenge–multiple or late-night jobs, cramped and unhealthy housing, lack of heat, and insufficient food.

Breaking up concentrated poverty and reducing segregation at the neighborhood and school levels offers tremendous potential. As Kahlenberg points out, “on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, low-income fourth grade students given the chance to attend more-affluent schools in math are two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools.”

Harvard University professor Heather Schwartz also finds that socioeconomic integration trumps extra resources in boosting achievement.  In her rigorous study of Montgomery County, Maryland schools, low-income students whose subsidized housing assignments enabled them to attend very low-poverty schools closed more of the achievement gap with their high-income peers than did low-income students in higher poverty schools who received an additional $2,000—monies which were devoted to extended learning time, smaller classes, and specialized professional development.

Effective policies exist to de-concentrate poverty and desegregate schools. Montgomery County showcases one of the smartest: laws that require developers to set aside a proportion of new housing units for subsidized housing, so that rather than creating ghettos of all-poor families (and resource-poor schools to go with them), lower-income families are able to reside in higher-income areas, and their children attend higher-income schools. Counties and cities across the country are exploring and adopting less restrictive zoning laws, since minimum-acreage lot requirements inherently lead to income segregation and force the concentration of poverty in less-restricted regions. The Century Foundation’s recent book, “The Future of School Integration,” advocates school “choice” focused on integrating students through voluntary inter-district transfer, and magnet schools that draw students of different ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds without busing, by making the case to today’s parents that a 21st century education requires no less.

As the United States increasingly regresses toward a Gilded Age of haves and have-nots—in terms of income, education, and opportunity—taking on concentrated poverty is critical. Indeed, Richard Rothstein and Mark Santow assert in their recent paper that, until we do so, education reform efforts are all but doomed.  Continuing to consign so many children and families to communities devoid of pathways out of poverty is tantamount to throwing away our greatest resource for the 21st century: human potential.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 5, 2013