Another Desperate Attempt to Fix America’s Schools
Business + Economy

Another Desperate Attempt to Fix America’s Schools

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Abraham Lincoln Elementary School and George Manierre Elementary School are less than two miles apart in Chicago's north side, but for the students they're worlds away. Despite their close proximity, Lincoln Elementary enrollees are nearly twice as likely to meet or exceed state reading standards, 37 percent more likely to be proficient in math, more than twice as likely to excel in science. One of several factors separating the two public schools is economics. Only 12 percent of Lincoln students are considered low-income (i.e. they qualify for free or reduced-price lunches) versus 96 percent of the student body at Manierre Elementary.

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Some education analysts argue that mixing the student bodies of these two schools may be a vital factor in improving education, and a handful of districts and private schools have begun enacting so-called "economic integration" policies that seek to create income-diverse schools, complete with rich kids, poor kids and everyone in between.

The programs are an effort to eliminate problems like low student performance, low parental engagement and difficulties recruiting quality teachers that are typical of "high poverty" schools (defined as schools where 76 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches), and come at a time when, overall, income segregation is worsening as most families with means fight to keep their children out of low-performing schools.

Achievement First, a new charter elementary school opening this summer in Providence, Rhode Island, is one such school seeking to enroll an economically diverse student body. To do so, administrators are using a weighted lottery that gives priority to low-income applicants. They selected 176 attendees out of approximately 1,200 applicants this past March.

The school is part of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academy, which began testing economic integration when they first opened in 2009, and has seen positive results – though half of all their students are low-income, currently 92 percent of the schools’ seventh-graders are proficient in math and 86 percent are in reading, which is more than double the proficiency rate for eighth graders across the state in both.

To get such results, each school incorporates longer school days, robust music programs and have co-teachers in select classrooms, all of which provide opportunities low-income students may not have had otherwise and incentives for middle class families to emigrate from high-quality suburban schools, says Mike Magee, CEO of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, who spoke recently at the South by Southwest EDU conference in Austin, Texas.

But longer days, high quality staff and extra enrichment programs are costly. The other way schools are creating economic diversity is to redraw district boundaries so that more middle class students attend low-income schools. Areas like Wake County in North Carolina and La Crosse, Wisconsin have both tried this strategy to mixed results. The approach creates transportation issues, controversy over where district lines should be drawn and can anger parents who buy homes near high-quality schools, according to Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a think tank in Washington D.C. that focuses on inequality issues. It also places extra pressure on teachers and administration to "ensure that students from different backgrounds interact. Simply throwing kids together by itself isn't sufficient," he says.

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Even if schools can overcome the problem of how to successfully mix students from varying backgrounds, there is still heavy debate on whether integration is the best way to eliminate the achievement gap between high and low-income students. The Century Foundation's 2010 study of Montgomery County, Maryland elementary school students living in public housing found that those who attended mixed schools significantly outperformed those attending high-poverty ones in reading and math.

A separate study of the integration program in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg county schools showed that at-risk students who were able to attend their school of choice were less likely to commit a violent crime or spend time in jail.

However, research published in 2006 on families in five major U.S. cities who used the federal Moving to Opportunity housing voucher program to transplant from public housing to more affluent neighborhoods concluded that living among the more affluent had no significant impact on student test scores, behavioral incidents or student engagement.

"The secret to good education is not moving kids around," says Abigail Thernstrom, vice chair of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and former member of the Massachusetts Board of Education. "The secret to good education is a culture of learning in a very strong school."

Thernstrom argues that economic integration policies aren't possible in areas like Washington DC that have high concentrations of high-poverty schools. Integration policies also undermine the real problem facing our education system.

"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," she says.

Instead of shifting student demographics between schools, Thernstrom says that the education system would benefit far more from policies that help recruit higher quality instructors in high-poverty schools, creating a learning-focused environment that builds life skills as well as academic ones and providing separate educational facilities for students who aren't committed to learning.

"Moving kids around has nothing to do with education," she says. "Good teachers have a lot to do with education."