On Thursday, April 18, 2013, theFiscal Times ran a slanted story that was critical of the growing effort of school districts to give more low-income students a chance to attend high-quality middle-class schools. The programs are an important effort to breathe new life into Brown v. Board of Education, so several misleading elements in the article deserve a response.
The piece, “Another Desperate Attempt to Fix America’s Schools,” by Christina Couch, begins by neutrally describing the efforts of school districts and charter schools to reduce concentrations of school poverty but then quickly morphs into a charged critique of the practice.
I have long been a supporter of economic integration programs, having written a 2001 book for Brookings Press called All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice,which concluded that the benefits of such programs far outweigh the costs. So I was taken aback when the article implied I was a critic of such plans in Wake County, North Carolina, and La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The article goes downhill from there. In reviewing the research on the effectiveness of efforts to give low-income students a chance to live in middle-class neighborhoods and attend middle-class schools, the article cites powerful studies in support and then balances that with a study of Moving to Opportunity, a federal program which showed few student achievement benefits. To the casual reader, this discussion of conflicting studies looks like a fair review of the research, but the article neglects to note that in the Moving to Opportunity program, the control group attended schools that were 74 percent low-income, but the treatment group attended schools that were 68 percent low-income, not much better.
Worst of all, the article gives the final four paragraphs to conservative critic Abigail Thernstrom, who trots out a series of misleading statements that go completely un-rebutted. Among them,
Thernstrom argues that economic integration policies aren’t possible in areas like Washington D.C. that have high concentrations of high-poverty schools.
This would be a surprise to the many charter schools in Washington, D.C.—such as Capital City and E.L. Haynes—that consciously try to bring together a socioeconomically diverse set of students to enhance the learning of all. It would also be surprising to the Chicago Public Schools, which are 85 percent low-income, yet are integrating a subset of magnet and selective enrollment schools by socioeconomic status.
“It’s awful to say ‘we don’t know what to do with these kids so we’ve got to move them out of the school they’re in.’ Why can’t they fix the schools? There are plenty of examples of high-poverty schools that are superb.” [Thernstrom] says.
Thernstrom is correct that there are examples of high-poverty schools that produce positive results, but suggesting there are “plenty” of them is pushing it. Many, such as the KIPP charter schools, rely on self-selection and high rates of attrition. (The one time KIPP tried to take over a regular high-poverty public school in Denver, it failed.) And while there are terrific examples of regular public high-poverty schools that are beating the odds, researcher Douglas Harris of Tulane University has found that middle-class schools are 22 times as likely to be high-performing as high-poverty schools. Middle-class schools typically enjoy more positive peer environments, more actively engaged parental groups, and stronger teachers than high-poverty schools, which is why 80 school districts now try to give low-income students greater access to them.
Instead of shifting student demographics between schools, Thernstrom says that the education system would benefit far more from policies that help recruit higher equality instructors in high-poverty schools. . . . “Moving kids around has nothing to do with education,” she says, “Good teachers have a lot to do with education.”
Thernstrom is right that teachers are very important, but extensive research finds it is extremely hard to recruit and retain them in high-poverty schools. Polls find that teachers care less about salary than working conditions—being in places where they can focus on teaching, not discipline issues, and where parents help volunteer in class—so it’s not surprising that efforts to connect great teachers to high-poverty schools through financial incentives often fail. According to a study by Stanford’s Eric Hanushek and colleagues, many teachers would have to be paid a premium on the order of 43 percent to stay in high-poverty schools. (Figure 4).
Socioeconomic integration is proven strategy whose benefits far outweigh the costs. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the article in the Fiscal Times.