Why Small Fixes for High-Poverty Schools Aren't Good Enough

I recently read The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy, the latest in a long line of Century Foundation books on similar topics. The authors of the book argue that placing poor kids in lower-poverty schools substantially improves their educational outcomes. More provocatively, the authors argue that these socioeconomic composition effects improve outcomes at even higher rates than traditional strategies like introducing additional funding, training, teaching strategies, and other special programs into high-poverty schools.

The evidence in the book is surprisingly sparse, consisting primarily of two studies. In the first study, Heather Schwartz takes advantage of an anomaly created by the public housing system in Montgomery County, Maryland, that had the effect of randomly assigning poor public housing recipients to the county's schools. Schwartz found that the poor public housing recipients that attended lower-poverty schools improved their math and reading attainment at higher rates than those that attended higher-poverty schools. This was true even though Montgomery County dedicates substantially more resources to schools it has determined to be in the greatest need.

In the second study, Jeanne Reid uses data from 11 state Pre-K programs to show that there is "a positive association between the average SES [socioeconomic status] of the children in a preschool classroom and their receptive language, expressive language, and math learning, regardless of their own SES and the racial/ethnic composition of the class." In many cases, poor kids did better in universal Pre-K programs that were more economically integrated than poor kids attending Pre-K programs specifically designed to meet the needs of poor kids.

From there, the book moves on to the politics of it all, leaving you convinced of the strategy only to the extent that you believe in the generalizability of a couple of short-term studies. It seems likely that, at the margin at least, putting poor kids into lower-poverty school will have some positive effect. How sizable that effect is and whether it will remain over the long-term is much less certain.

Like so much literature on the topic, the book sadly focuses exclusively on how to mop up a tiny bit of the disaster that is caused by enormous socioeconomic inequality. We have some of our country's greatest minds and researchers trying to figure out how to slightly ameliorate the damage of inequality and poverty without ever tackling those topics themselves. Were an alien to land in this country, they would be utterly bewildered by this odd social ritual. At step one, we install economic institutions that create extraordinary levels of inequality and poverty, and then at step two, we spend ungodly sums of money and time trying to figure out how to make the system we create at step one less horrific. In large part, step two is the domain of the education researcher in this society.

The strategy of putting poor kids in low-poverty schools is a fantastic example of the odd focus of this whole genre of research. After all, if low-poverty schooling environments are really good, we can easily create them by dramatically reducing poverty and inequality by changing our society's distribution of income and wealth. The immediate cause of high-poverty schools is high poverty, not lack of busing or magnet schools that can attract middle class kids or whatever else. Just as a matter of math, you knock out high poverty and you knock out most high-poverty schools. But that's not on the agenda. It never even gets a mention. Instead we end up trying to find a way to get some number of poor kids into low-poverty schools so that they might achieve some short-term educational boost.

But the socioeconomic diversity strategy is certainly not the the worst in this regard. The worst in the genre of mop-up-the-disaster reforms comes to us courtesy of Joe Nocera in The New York Times. He reports on the work of Dr. Pamela Cantor, who has recently made waves for her strategy of putting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) counselors in impoverished schools. You see, growing up in poverty is so bad and so stressful that kids wind up with PTSD problems not unlike victims of war or terrorist attacks. In perfect mop-up-the-disaster fashion, the obvious solution is not apparently to stop the trauma at its source, but to put the kids through the trauma and then have an army of school counselors ready to talk to them about it afterwards. This is the cutting edge of creative thought on educating poor kids, sadly enough.

Beyond the problem with mop-up-the-disaster policy in general, there is something especially misguided about the idea of socioeconomic diversity that deserves special mention. In a world of extreme stratification like the one we live in, achieving some kind of socioeconomic diversity in our institutions is better than nothing. But the end goal is to eliminate socioeconomic diversity as much as possible. The ascendancy of diversity politics has wrongly bled over into discussions of class where it absolutely does not belong. The goal of economic justice is not to create class-diverse environments so that rich and poor can mingle together. It is to eliminate class diversity as much as practicable by cutting off inequality and poverty at its source, i.e. our distributive institutions. It is thus always somewhat misguided to say that the problem with our schools is class segregation. The ultimate problem is that there are so many poor people that such segregation can even exist to begin with. But when we talk about socioeconomic diversity and combine that talk with a mop-up-the-disaster policy strategy, we often end up badly missing the point.

Comments

First, I'd like to note that I am an education researcher, and I have great respect for the Century Foundation and the work they have done regarding socioeconomic integration in schools. Second, I agree that more needs to be done to help students stuck in high-poverty schools.

However, I don't quite follow the author's thread of logic from start to finish in this article. If, as the author states mid-way through this article, our system consists of "economic institutions that create extraordinary levels of inequality and poverty," and money translates to political power, then those with a great deal of money (power) will fall prey to human nature and hoard their power/wealth while trying to exclude others from sharing in it. We have a system where a few people have a great deal of power and money, and use that to further their interests (typically being the acquisition of more money/power). Against this backdrop, the author criticizes education researchers for attempting to address some of the startling inequities present in our system of public and private education, instead of working on ways to create a more equal wealth distribution.

I guess it seems to me that education researchers are engaged in working toward a long-term solution to the wealth inequality problem. Policies don't change because smart, thoughtful people come up with new, workable ideas. In the short time I have been in DC working on policy it has become very clear to me that good ideas are all over the place. However, because these ideas upset the status quo and would probably result in some of the money from our most wealthy flowing to the least wealthy, they are ignored by those with political power (wealth). If, however, those myriad people currently at the bottom (heck, bottom 60-70%) of the economic ladder were to get a better education that enabled them to more fully understand and be able to vote their economic interests, then we may see new policies seriously considered that could address our insane wealth gap. However, without an informed, educated, organized populace there will never be a political force capable of pushing back against the monied interests that currently dominate our politics (and thus our social and economic policy). In this way it seems to me the author's criticism is misplaced.

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