Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Research Supports Critics of Wake County School Board Neighborhood Schools Policy

A new research study released on October 15, 2010 by The Century Foundation gives additional ammunition to the critics of the Wake County School Board's new efforts to move from economic diversity to neighborhood proximity as the basis for assignments to schools.  The report, "Housing Policy is School Policy," shows that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds achieve significantly higher scores on standardized tests if they attend schools with low percentages of poverty when compared to their peers in high poverty schools, even though the latter students are targeted with much greater resources. 
The study spent seven years following the educational progress of 858 elementary school students living in public housing in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington, DC (where I used to live), is generally a very affluent and educated bedroom community for the Nation’s capitol; its demographics are very similar to the average population in Cary, NC, the affluent and educated bedroom community for the state’s capitol (which is where I live now).  However, Montgomery County does one thing very differently; it requires developers to include public housing units along with all its middle/upper-middle class, or even elite development projects.  Families applying for public housing are assigned to the different projects on a lottery basis.  
Therefore, about half of the students in the study ended up going to a neighborhood school (possible because the neighborhoods themselves were socioeconomically diverse, due to the Montgomery County housing policy) where less than 20% of students qualified for the free school lunch program.  The other half went to schools considered to be high-poverty because up to 60% of all students qualified for subsidized meals.  This case is also special because since the housing is done by lottery, the students are distributed randomly between the two groups (as opposed to, for example, most charter schools, who enroll students of parents who motivated enough to jump through the hoops necessary to get their children into such special programs).
At the end of seven years, the poor students in the low-poverty schools has narrowed the gap between them and middle class or higher students by 50% in math and by 30% in reading.  They achieved these gains even though the county gave the high-poverty schools an additional $2,000 per student for supplemental educational resources.  Or, looking at it from the other perspective, an estimated $858,000 or so in additional funds targeted for high-poverty school students produced no effect, at least compared to simply sending them to low-poverty schools.
In truth, this is not a surprising discovery for professional educators.  The original groundbreaking study of school inequality, the 1966 “Equality of Educational Opportunities” publication known as the Coleman Report, showed that the best predictors of student success in school were:
#1--Parental Income (of course, homeschoolers are an anomaly sub-popular in that regard) and
#2--Socioeconomic Status of the School attended. 
In the nearly 45 years since that report, the data on the family’s socioeconomic status has not changed.   Parental income still makes the biggest difference, statistically, in a student’s success than any other demographic feature--race, age, gender, etc.  This study suggests that the second one has not changed either.
So the School Board can say what they like about ensuring the success of low-income students.  But the research says that they are dismantling the system that has proven to be most effective is supporting those students.  And even if there is extra money available to support additional resources for the high-poverty schools that would be created in high-poverty neighborhoods, it doesn't seem like it will produce any increase in educational achievement, at least in comparison to allowing them to remain in economically diverse schools.

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