This blog post is a direct response to all of the questions I've now heard about "why should we have a goal of equalizing the % of low income students?" on my blog and privately. I've got to say, having to justify this as a goal is a bit shocking to me ... since I'd assume that if we were starting our schools from scratch and someone proposed, "let's put most of the low income students in one school all together," it would seem pretty unreasonable. But somehow, if that is the case that a district has (and it is the case in our district), this type of status quo seems ... ideal? So, I'm gathering data that has convinced me this goal of creating schools with an equal % of kids on free/reduced lunch is in the way to go.
Do low income kids do better in schools that are predominantly middle income?
A lot of research on the benefits of not clustering low income kids at one school has been conducted by Richard Kahlenberg (you can google and find him and read this research yourself). Briefly, this research points to a number of academic benefits to low income kids of not being in schools with high percentages of low income kids, including:
-Among 4th grade students, for every 1% point increase in middle-class classmates, low income students improve .64 points in reading and .72 points in math (David Rusk study, 2002), and
-Low income students at schools that are 85% middle class students show a 20 to 32% improvement in scores compared to those in a school that is 45% middle class (David Rusk study, 2002).
Here I'm quoting from the Century Foundation's report, “Rescuing Brown v. Board of Education”: some forty school districts nationally have turned to income as a basis for student assignment. Using factors such as eligibility for free and reduced price lunch, these districts have had considerable success in raising student achievement and indirectly promoting racial integration as well. In Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina for example, the school board adopted a policy goal in 2000 that no school should have more than 40% of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch or more than 25% of students performing below grade level. Low-income and minority students in Wake substantially outperform comparable students in other large North Carolina districts that have failed to reduce concentrations of poverty. And Wake County’s middle-class students continue to thrive academically.
Wake County’s plan has the additional benefit of providing racial integration indirectly, which is desirable because we want schools not only to raise test scores but also to produce tolerant citizens. The socioeconomic integration plan produces almost as much racial integration as the district’s prior race-conscious integration program and it does so in a manner that even conservatives concede is perfectly legal.
For years, American education has tried to make separate schools for rich and poor work well, to little avail. The program in Wake County and other districts pursuing integration by income suggests that Brown doesn’t need to be buried. It needs to be reinvented.
This seems to me to be a pretty clear statement -- reminding us that maybe separate just isn't ever equal?
Why do low income kids do better in schools that have a higher % of middle income kids?
Kahlenberg proposes three reasons:
1. Peers are different: turn-over in high poverty schools is great, discipline issues are more common on high poverty schools, peers in middle income schools are more likely to do homework/less likely to skip class, middle income kids tend to have bigger vocabularies and are more academically engaged which is beneficial in terms of exposure/modeling.
2. Parents are different: middle class parents are more likely to be involved in school activities, can volunteer more, can help fundraise more effectively.
3. Teachers are different: curriculum is more challenging in middle class schools than in predominantly low income schools, and expectations are higher for all kids.
Here is what the Century Foundation Report notes:
While it is true that blacks don’t need to sit next to whites to learn, segregated schools in America almost always have high concentrations of poverty. These high poverty schools—even when equally funded—lack other critical “resources” that matter even more than money: supportive peers, active parents, and great teachers with high expectations.
Any parent knows that children learn a great deal from their peers, and research confirms that it is an advantage to have classmates who are academically engaged and aspire to go on to college. Peers in high poverty schools are less likely to do homework, more likely to cut class, and about twice as likely to act out. It is also an advantage to go to a school where parents actively volunteer in the school and hold school officials accountable. For a variety of reasons, middle-class parents are far more active in school affairs; they are, for example, four times as likely to be members of the PTA. If life were fair, low income students would get the best teachers because they need them most, but in fact the opposite occurs. Teachers in high poverty schools are less likely to experienced and licensed, to teach in their field of expertise, and to have high teacher test scores. Expectations are also dumbed down, so that the grade of “C” in a middle class school is the equivalent of the grade of “A” in a high poverty school, as measured by standardized test results.
So profound is the effect of concentrated poverty that middle class kids in high poverty schools perform worse on average than low income students in middle class schools. The paucity of middle-class children explains why cities like Washington D.C. and Hartford Connecticut outspend their suburban counterparts but still fail to provide the kind of quality education provided by middle-class schools.
Significantly, all of these resources—positive peer influences, active parents, and good teachers—track more closely with the economic makeup than the racial makeup of the student body. Forty years ago, the well-known Coleman Report found that “the beneficial effect of a student body with a high proportion of white students comes not from the racial composition per se but from the better educational background and higher educational aspirations that are, on average, found among whites.”
I'm not going to retype all of the material Kahlenberg describes ... but you can go to the Century Foundation website and check out the very thoughtful and detailed report entitled "Rescuing Brown v. Board of Education: Profiles of Twelve School Districts Pursuing Socioeconomic School Integration" for a look at how other districts have tackled drawing lines in pursuit of socioeconomic integration.
One more thing: we have closed a school and are going to draw new lines. The only question is whether we should draw these lines to maintain a single school that is composed of a large % of kids on free/reduced lunch (approximately 50%) and two schools that have substantially fewer kids on free reduced lunch (24 to 33%). If this community feels that the right thing to do -- educationally, morally -- is to maintain such massive differences in school population, then you need to make your opinions known loudly and clearly to the School Committee. But my own view is that once again, we need to look to the outside world and what the research tells us: separate schools for low income versus moderate/high income kids reduces achievement in low income students for a variety of reasons, which is why many other districts are now pursuing strategies to integrate schools around socioeconomic status.