The school board in Loudoun County, Va., is about to make an important decision on where to send several hundred low-income students to school. The outcome is important, as explained in this post by Richard D. Kahlenberg. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an expert on socioeconomic integration and labor issues in public schools. He is also co-author of “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.”
By Richard D. Kahlenberg
On Tuesday, the school board in Loudoun County, Va., a wealthy D.C. suburb, is slated to decide whether to reassign several hundred low-income students who now attend economically integrated schools to two high-poverty schools. Doing so would reverse Loudoun’s decade-old policy of socioeconomic integration — and fly in the face of 50 years of research suggesting that concentrations of poverty are bad for children.
As Moriah Balingit noted in a front-page Washington Post Metro story, some school board members claim that reassigning low-income, mostly Latino students to high-poverty schools would be beneficial to them. School board member Jill Turgeon said, “When you have students that have common needs, you can direct your instructional methods in that manner and you have more resources because you have more students with that particular need.”
Proponents of the new plan also claim that concentrating low-income students in a couple of schools could bring in more federal money; and that assigning students closer to home means shorter bus rides for students and might spark greater involvement in school affairs by parents.
But scholarship on the issue suggests creating economically segregated schools is a terrible idea. While we all know of individual high-poverty schools that succeed, Douglas Harris of Tulane University has found that middle-class schools are 22 times as likely to be high performing as high-poverty schools. Low-income fourth-graders who have the chance to attend more affluent schools are as much as two years ahead of low-income students in high-poverty schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics.
In economically mixed schools, peers are more likely to be academically engaged, have large vocabularies, and expect to go on to college than classmates in high-poverty schools. Parents in middle-class schools have greater job flexibility and are four times as likely to be members of the PTA and are twice as likely to volunteer in class as parents in high-poverty schools. And teacher are more experienced, on average, and have higher expectations for students. One study found that the grade of “A” in a low-income school is equivalent of the grade of “C” in a middle-class school.
Pouring extra resources into high-poverty schools can help, but careful research suggests that peers, parents, and teachers matter even more than money in education. The best research on this question is a 2010 study by RAND Corporation researcher Heather Schwartz of two programs in Montgomery County, Maryland. One program provided $2,000 extra per pupil in higher-poverty schools for reduced class size in the early grades, extended learning time, and professional development for teachers. The other program allowed low-income families to live in middle-class neighborhoods and attend middle-class public schools.
Families were randomly assigned to public housing throughout the county, some to the higher-poverty schools spending more per pupil and some to middle-class schools spending less. Initially, both sets of students performed at similar levels, but over time, the low-income students in more affluent schools performed far better. Similar programs, involving low-income students who attended higher-performing schools outside their neighborhoods, have also found strong positive results.
Some supporters of the plan to reassign students to high-poverty schools point out that the achievement gap between low-income students and the general population is smaller in high-poverty Eastern Loudoun South schools than in economically integrated schools. But as David Bauer, a public school parent in Loudoun who has a PhD in computer science and works as a data scientist for the U.S. Intelligence Community noted, the gap is smaller not because the disadvantaged students are doing better but because the advantaged students do worse in East Loudon South schools. Clearly, that’s not the best way to close the achievement gap.
What about the advantages of sending children to schools close to home? “I think there are a lot of benefits in allowing a natural grouping of the students according to their neighborhood,” Turgeon said.
But when neighborhoods are segregated, schools are segregated. And it’s important to question the idea that there is anything “natural” about segregated neighborhoods.
As my colleague Kimberly Quick has noted, “Neighborhood-level concentrated poverty and racial segregation are direct results of past and present policy choices,” including Federal Housing Administration underwriting rules that discouraged integration. “We need to stop pretending” that “on the eighth day, God created neighborhoods. Segregation is made-made, not natural,” she said.
Loudoun was right when it adopted a socioeconomic integration plan a decade ago. Nationally, some 90 districts and charter chains have moved in this direction in recent years. These programs not only benefit low-income students, they also help middle-income students learn from the different life experiences of classmates. As a new paper by Amy Stuart Wells of Teachers College, Columbia University, and colleagues demonstrates, diversity makes all students smarter and better prepared to thrive in 21st Century America.