Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

October 18, 2010

On Economic Diversity in Schools

Filed under: Poverty — millerlf @ 2:47 pm

Study of Montgomery County schools shows benefits of economic integration

By Stephanie McCrummen and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 15, 2010; 12:26 AM 

Low-income students in Montgomery County performed better when they attended affluent elementary schools instead of ones with higher concentrations of poverty, according to a new study that suggests economic integration is a powerful but neglected school-reform tool.
The debate over reforming public education has focused mostly on improving individual schools through better teaching and expanded accountability efforts. But the study, to be released Friday, addresses the potential impact of policies that mix income levels across several schools or an entire district. And it suggests that such policies could be more effective than directing extra resources at higher-poverty schools.
The idea is easier to apply in areas with substantial middle-class populations and more difficult in communities, such as the District, with large concentrations of poverty. Yet it lends fresh support to an idea as old as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954: Segregated schools – in this case, separated by economics, not law – are rarely as good as diverse ones at educating low-income students.
“Today, 95 percent of education reform is about trying to make high-poverty schools work,” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank based in New York that published the report. “This research suggests there is a much more effective way to help close the achievement gap. And that is to give low-income students a chance to attend middle-class schools.” The study tracked the performance of 858 elementary students in public housing scattered across Montgomery from 2001 to 2007. About half the students ended up in schools where less than 20 percent of students qualified for subsidized meals. Most others went to schools where up to 60 percent of the students were poor and where the county had poured in extra money.
After seven years, the children in the lower-poverty schools performed 8 percentage points higher on standardized math tests than their peers attending the higher-poverty schools – even though the county had targeted them with extra resources. Students in these schools scored modestly higher on reading tests, but those results were not statistically significant. “The conventional wisdom – and I don’t want to knock the foundation of it – is that we really need to infuse the poorest schools with lots of resources,” said Stefanie DeLuca, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, who has studied the issue and read an advance copy of the report. “This study turns that wisdom on its head to some extent. It says, actually, it’s who you are going to school with.”
Independent researchers call the report a step forward in studying the benefits of economic integration, which has been difficult to measure because it is hard to find large numbers of poor kids in wealthy areas. But Montgomery provided an ideal laboratory because of a long-standing policy of requiring developers to set aside housing for low-income families, who win spots through a lottery.
That randomness strengthens the study, researchers say. It mitigates a problem that hampered previous studies in which parents actively chose to place their children in better schools, making it difficult to separate the effect of the schools from the effect of having motivated parents.
Researchers see the results as especially significant because Montgomery, one of the nation’s best and largest public school districts with 144,000 students, has been uncommonly aggressive in seeking to improve the performance of students in schools with higher poverty.
It has divided the county into a high-performing, more-affluent green zone and a high-needs red zone, where schools receive about $2,000 more in per-pupil funding. And yet, the low-income students in the study performed better in the green-zone schools.
Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said that the report’s findings were no surprise but that his policies are designed to counteract the ill effects of housing patterns that concentrate poverty in certain areas.

‘Art of the possible’

“We chose to do the art of the possible,” Weast said. “Housing policy is a far stretch for a school superintendent.”
Education researcher Heather Schwartz wrote the study while working toward a PhD in education at Columbia University. She now works for the Rand Corp., which had no role in the study.
Researchers say that poor schools often struggle because they tend to attract rotating staffs of less-experienced teachers and administrators, among other problems. Schools with lower levels of poverty have a range of benefits that include more stable staffs, fewer discipline problems and more support from volunteers. Parents who have one job instead of three also have an easier time being involved. And expectations are usually higher.
“This is not about ‘poor kids can’t learn,’ ” DeLuca said. “It’s about the fact that we’ve had a legacy in this country of segregated neighborhoods and socioeconomic isolation from opportunities and the mainstream of life.”
The U.S. Education Department’s $4 billion “Race to the Top” program encourages states to adopt policies that increase the role of student performance in teacher evaluations, expand charter school offerings, make it easier to fire bad teachers and adopt national standards for reading and math.

Scars from busing battles

But questions about integrating school systems have not been front-and-center since the 1970s, and scars from school busing battles have made policymakers leery of raising such issues again. Most districts nationwide now assign students to schools based only on where they live. Parents with the means to live close to top-performing schools often have resisted efforts that would send their children to schools with larger numbers of students from low-income families.
“There is still this kind of fear, a fear that is not easily overcome when you have a government that is highly parochial,” said David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque who has written extensively on the subject. “Public officials in the United States with rare exceptions do not want to deal with the underlying economic and racial segregation of our neighborhoods.”
A growing number of school districts – at least 60 so far – has in recent years been experimenting with strategies that promote economic diversity. These include magnet schools, student assignment policies that take into account economic status and agreements that give poor kids a chance to attend schools in wealthier suburbs.
“This study confirms what we’ve long believed,” Education Department spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said via e-mail. She said that federal proposals to expand existing public school choice and magnet school programs were aimed at promoting racial and socioeconomic diversity.
The money spent on those programs, however, is relatively small, Kahlenberg said.
Dominique Johnson, 13, who attended an elementary school in the District before moving to a public housing apartment in Bethesda, said the difference was obvious.
“It was a bad, bad school,” she said of her old school, shaking her head. “The principal, I don’t think she did anything about all the fights. I had this one teacher who would curse at the kids.”
At North Bethesda Middle School, she said, she found rules, focus and difficult classes with attentive teachers. Her grades dropped. But after a year or so, they improved.
“Now I understand the work,” she said. “I’ve made friends. The principal is nice. It was harder at first, but at lunch I’d go to classes and the teachers helped me.”


  1. This is a great read. I was looking for an article specificly on this topic for my gov. class this semester. This really helped and the grades and performance pushed out of poverty level school districs is something to be studied. Thanks for writting about it.

    Comment by Janice — November 1, 2010 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  2. This is very interesting. I never really thought about economically integrating the schools to help the children from high-poverty areas. I think that the high-poverty children performed better in the middle-class schools because they were around students and teachers who held themselves to higher standards. The stereo-typical idea is that children from areas of extreme poverty have reached a great achievement if they only graduate high school. I feel, however, that the children at my middle-class school were not only expected to graduate but also to make good grades and go on to college. I feel that giving impoverished children the opportunity to be around students who are being held to higher standards will make those children hold themselves to a higher standard as well. Not to mention the difference in the quality of the teachers from a high-poverty school to a middle-class school, just as Dominique mentioned in the article. I believe that economic diversity would benefit all of our schools, but the fact that the area that you live in dictates which schools you are allowed to attend makes that idea difficult.

    Comment by Laura Holt — July 6, 2011 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

  3. This reading has given me a great overview of the achievement gap and diversity. I am currently taking a class on exploring diversity and we have discussed a few things of this nature. I feel that students should be placed in an environment where they are in interactions with children of different economic levels. After visiting different schools and reading this article I have realized that there is a difference in the schools. The schools in higher economic areas do tend to have more stable staffs, fewer discipline problems and more support from volunteers. The parents are more involved because the households are of parents who have one job instead of two or three, which allows them to have more time to be involved. However, in the lower poverty schools the parents have two to three jobs and are not able to be as involved. I also think that the idea of families winning a house in a higher economic area was a good step to take in acknowledging the problem of lower poverty children not getting the same educational opportunities as others. The study done in the end of the article shows how if a child is able to notice the difference, then there is a difference, and some type of change should be made. Diversity is shown in many ways and this article is a great example of diversity between poverty and higher economic schools.

    Comment by moncrief — July 8, 2011 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

  4. I have been searching for blogs on educational diversity, and we have been talking about this exact issue this week. I originally thought that schools being segregated due to economic status was an awful situation, and after reading this article, I see that my thoughts were founded. I live in a smaller community where the school is very diverse due to the fact there is only one school for several surrounding towns. I think diversity is a situation everyone is steeped in, and this diversity creates the drive for people to be more determined, more compassionate, and more open-minded. I definitely see the benefits of having an integrated school socially, economically, and culturally. As far as this blog goes, the ideas behind lower income students receiving a better education within the middle class communities makes total sense to me. In these areas, you find teachers who have the experience, are more driven to see their students succeed, and are stable within that school. Most teachers who teach in lower economic communities strive to obtain the jobs with the middle and upper class schools. Most schools in the poverty stricken areas are lacking in resources, and as stated above, have families where parents work multiple jobs or lack the education to help struggling students. Also, I think there is a real threat of becoming more involved in crime in the lower sector of schools that would deter students from achieving their potential. I believe when students see others who are soaring academically, that encourages them to grasp hold of that success and take a little for themselves. I think the housing lottery was an excellent idea to begin to introduce this diversity the students needed because when people live within their own little worlds without thought for others, nothing will ever change. When we are faced with diversity, it makes us better! This was a great article to support the issue of integrating schools due to economic diversities!

    Comment by Mackenzie — June 6, 2012 @ 6:42 pm | Reply

  5. I thing this article makes a great point. Poverty in schools is something that has always been tied to low performance, so why haven’t we been integrating all along? It is definitely true that poorer school districts tend to bring in less experienced teachers, most of which are not that motivated. Whether it is because they would rather be working elsewhere, or whatever the reason, how are children expected to perform well if their teachers don’t expect them to? I’m not saying this is the case in all high-poverty schools, but I’m sure some people have just given up on them. If you surround students with well-performing, middle-class kids and teachers, I think we will definitely see a vast improvement. Some people may argue that this will drag the well performing schools down, but as long as they do not change their way of doing things, I do not think so. Implementing this plan is a different story and definitely not easy. If we decide to make this a policy for some school districts, I will be interested to see how they carry it out.

    Comment by kmerritt — August 31, 2012 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

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