An alarming report this month by the Montgomery County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight found increasing racial and economic segregation in the county’s public schools and a widening of achievement gaps along racial and economic lines. The report’s good news was that low-income students in more-affluent schools perform better than comparable students in higher-poverty schools. The bad news was that more and more disadvantaged children attend schools where most of their classmates are also disadvantaged.
Reacting to the report, The Post properly suggested in a recent editorial, “Montgomery schools must reduce education disparities between high- and low-income areas.” But rather than addressing segregation itself, The Post suggested that officials improve middle schools and better target resources “for students most in need.”
A half-century of research, however, suggests that pouring extra funds into high-poverty schools is not the most important thing policymakers can do for poor kids. Giving them access to high-quality middle-class schools is far more effective. Money matters in education, but other things matter more.
The “resources” a school provides include not only funds but also academically engaged peers who encourage achievement among classmates, a cadre of parents who volunteer in class and know how to pull the levers of power when things go wrong and teachers who have high expectations for students. All of these ingredients for success are much more likely to be found in schools with a majority of middle-class students than in high-poverty schools.
One of the most rigorous studies on the effects of economic school segregation comes from Montgomery County itself. In 2010, RAND researcher Heather Schwartz published research with the Century Foundation that tracked low-income students at public housing units (and attending neighborhood elementary schools) throughout Montgomery County. The study found that low-income students in lower-poverty schools did far better over time than those in higher-poverty schools — even though the latter spent $2,000 more per pupil. Two-thirds of the beneficial effect stemmed from being in a lower-poverty school, Schwartz concluded; the other third was from being in a lower-poverty neighborhood.
Montgomery County has a nationally recognized inclusionary zoning program that helps foster diversity by encouraging the construction of affordable housing, but its school integration efforts are extremely modest. Magnet schools draw students from the more affluent western part of the county to the eastern half, but they are limited in reach and often employ a “school within a school” model that restricts interaction among students.
Moreover, there is no widespread effort to allow low-income students to transfer to wealthier schools, a practice in other jurisdictions. This omission is a major drawback of Montgomery’s integration efforts. More-advantaged children would benefit immensely from greater levels of school integration. My children have received terrific academic preparation in the Pyle-Whitman cluster in Bethesda, for instance, but they miss out on the benefits of learning alongside those with different life experiences rooted in race and income.
Integration in Montgomery County is far more feasible than in higher-poverty school districts. Montgomery schools are majority middle class, and students are highly diverse by race: 32 percent are white, 27 percent Latino, 21 percent African American and 14 percent Asian. While that level of racial diversity would have been threatening to white parents in the past, today’s families often have a different set of attitudes, as evidenced by long waiting lists for many schools around the country with a rainbow of students.
Middle-class parents understandably do not want to send their children to schools with overwhelming poverty, but Columbia University researchers Allison Roda and Amy Stuart Wells have found that many white, advantaged parents see racial and ethnic diversity as a plus in preparing children for a 21st-century workforce. Schools that offer bilingual Spanish and English programs are particularly popular and highlight the ways in which diversity bolsters learning, as native Spanish speakers can help English speakers learn a new language, and vice versa.
Before becoming Montgomery County’s superintendent, Joshua P. Starr led the Stamford, Conn., public schools, where a school choice system was structured to promote socioeconomic integration. Starr has earmarked $200,000 in his fiscal 2015 budget for a review of school choice policies. Why not customize the lessons of some 80 districts that pursue such integration to the conditions in Montgomery County?
Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, most education reform continues to try to make the best of schools that are segregated along lines of race and income. But those efforts have been generally unsuccessful. Majority middle-class schools are 22 times more likely to be high-performing than majority low-income schools. And low-income students attending more-affluent schools are two years ahead of their counterparts in high-poverty schools on the fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress in math. Montgomery County is well positioned to become a leader in promoting opportunity for all students by taking on economic school segregation directly.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
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