We forget the obvious, proven lesson when it comes to trying to improve how poor children perform in school.
Poor kids do better when they go to school with other students who aren't poor.
I know this is the old busing and integration message, a much-maligned solution. But it's the basic point from the decades-old Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation case. It's also the reason why Hartford parents fight to get their child in Open Choice schools in the suburbs.
But in an era when we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build new schools in our poorest cities, a remarkable new study out of Montgomery County, Md., is worth some attention.
Starting in 2001, researchers began tracking 858 poor children living in public housing in Montgomery County who were randomly assigned to high-poverty and low-poverty schools throughout the district. Montgomery County, located just outside of Washington, D.C., was useful for a few important reasons: public housing is spread throughout low income and more affluent neighborhoods and families are randomly assigned to live in apartments. This removed the problem of higher motivated parents who "self-select" particular schools and allowed for a more fair comparison of how low-income students perform in different schools over time.
The area also has some similarity to greater Hartford because affluent, middle class and impoverished neighborhoods are relatively close together.
In the study, schools with the greatest concentration of poverty received about $2,000 more per student in funding.
After seven years, the results were striking. The low-income students attending the "most-advantaged" schools — the ones with the fewest poor children — scored better than low-income students who attended the less wealthy, though better funded, schools. Low-income children in schools with less poverty scored 8 points higher on standardized math tests. They also had higher reading scores.
"The low income students who had chance to go to more affluent schools closed the math achievement gap with more affluent students by half. The reading gap was closed by a third,'' said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow with the Century Foundation, which published the research. "It's a powerful intervention."
"You are influenced by your peers. The parents are more likely to volunteer in middle class schools,'' Kahlenberg said. "The best teachers gravitate toward the middle class schools and flee the high poverty schools."
Plaintiffs in the Sheff case, which was originally about economic and racial segregation, have made a strong argument that schools full of poor kids don't do as well. (See Hartford).
A report by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, released Thursday, is another reminder: Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury are islands of poverty and low student achievement amid the state's wealth.
"We brought the lawsuit to deal with racial concentration and poverty concentration,'' said Martha Stone, a Sheff lawyer. "If you deconcentrate, it makes a difference."
Most poor people are trapped in the state's cities because they can't afford to move. Only 31 of our 169 municipalities have at least 10 percent or more of housing classified as affordable, according to the Partnership for Strong Communities, which promotes construction of more affordable housing. Often, it isn't a lack of private developers blocking creation of multi-family housing for working class residents in the suburbs — it's local zoning laws.
"If you are low or moderate income, you are pretty much confined to those 31 communities. There is a direct correlation between student performance and income level,'' said David Fink, policy director for the partnership. "It's not drug dealers and gang leaders. It's good people who want to have a future for their kids."
Over the last 10 years, the state Department of Education reports that we have spent more than $3 billion to construct new magnet and charter schools that seek to bring together students from mixed racial and economic backgrounds. It's an expensive and often effective solution.
If we really want to improve public education, the Montgomery County study shows us we've got to do more than pour more money into our isolated, impoverished cities. We must open up opportunities to live somewhere else
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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