Sending Poor Kids to Middle-Class Schools Doesn't Fix the System

It doesn't produce better test scores, either


Proximity is not destiny, educationally speaking. A generation of experience with racial integration has taught a clear lesson: Sitting black kids next to white kids in school is not a silver bullet that zaps unequal achievement.

However, the faith that proximity leads to equal achievement remains the cargo cult of education. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court barred school assignments based on race to increase racial diversity. So school leaders immediately began considering economic integration plans instead.

Sit poor kids next to middle-class kids. That should work!

Presidential candidate John Edwards—Mr. Two Americas—has made this the core of his education proposals. He promises "a million housing vouchers" over five years to move poor kids to better schools in the 'burbs plus $200 million to create magnet schools that will lure affluent kids to inner city schools.

The magnet school scheme was tried from 1985 to 1997 in Kansas City, Missouri, at a cost of $2 billion. To lure suburban white students, Kansas City's inner-city schools were equipped with lavish facilities: Indoor pools, gymnasia, high-tech science labs, computers, etc. But programs designed for the needs and interests of middle-class white suburbanites did not serve inner-city blacks. And few suburban students were willing to commute to city schools for a luxury athletic complex or a classics magnet. Test scores remained dreadful. By 1997, the district actually had a smaller percentage of white students than when the plan started.

Well, what about moving poor kids to better schools?

That's been tried too with no effect on academic achievement. The journal Education Next reports on a study of families who moved out of public housing projects and into better neighborhoods in Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York: "A randomized evaluation of the 'Moving to Opportunity' (MTO) program—a federal housing program piloted in five major U.S. cities that sought to relocate poor families by providing housing vouchers—shows that, contrary to expectations, moving families out of high-poverty neighborhoods has no overall positive impact on children's learning."

The new neighborhoods were significantly less poor and their residents were better educated. But researchers found no difference in children's reading or math scores or in behavior or attitudes toward school when comparing families that won the housing lottery with those who didn't. There also was no effect on retentions in grade or suspensions.

Researchers thought the youngest children might gain more than older students who'd spent years in schools with low expectations. Nope. Children who moved in the early grades did no better, compared to the control group, than older children.

You can take the poor out of the ghetto or barrio—and they're usually delighted to move to safer areas. But they take with them the same habits and attitudes that undercut school success.

In Baltimore, parents who used vouchers to move often didn't enroll their children in better schools, Johns Hopkins researcher Stefanie DeLuca writes, "Many MTO parents told us about frightening conditions in their children's schools and their concern for their children's well-being. Yet these fears and realities did not always translate into efforts to remove their children from these environments. Poor mothers and their children juggle myriad extreme conditions, and schooling is not always on the top of the list."

In my book, Our School, I describe the struggles and triumphs of a charter high school in San Jose, California, that recruits 'D' and 'F' students, works their butts off and sends all graduates to college. Downtown College Prep succeeds because it targets instruction to struggling students who come from low-income and working-class families; most are the children of poorly educated Mexican immigrant parents. Mixing in middle-class whites would dilute the focus.

Success may require explicit teaching of behaviors and skills that middle-class students don't need to be taught and extra counselors to deal with family problems and reach out to parents. It almost certainly requires a longer school day. What isn't essential is proximity to white or middle-class students.

Joanne Jacobs, is an adjunct scholar at Reason Foundation and author of Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds and an adjunct scholar at Reason Foundation. She blogs on education at JoanneJacobs.com.