Richard Kahlenberg’s “From All Walks of Life, New Hope for School Integration,” updates the evidence in favor of socio-economic integration as the best single way to improve outcomes for poor children. He also gives reason for measured hope that it can be expanded, perhaps replacing failed test-driven attempts to improve poor schools. I remain unconvinced, however, that Kahlenberg’s wisdom will be scaled up.
Kahlenberg summarizes research explaining that socio-economic integration works because it involves all three of the essential factors of effective schools. Low-income students in schools where less than 50% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch are surrounded by peers that are academically engaged, have larger vocabularies, and who are less likely to disrupt class. They also benefit from a community of involved parents, and teachers with higher expectations.
Kahlenberg cites research showing that a school’s socio-economic status has as much influence on a student’s performance as his individual status. Another study found that the racial achievement gap is likely to be smaller when black and Latino students are not stuck in high-poverty schools. He also describes the experience in Montgomery County which shows that socio-economic integration is more helpful to poor children than even school reforms that are successful. This is particularly important given the disappointing outcomes of most instruction-driven efforts to improve high-poverty schools.
Montgomery County invested $2,000 per student in its lowest-performing schools. It extended learning time, cut class size, and offered intensive professional development. These schools, known as the “red zone,” produced double-digit gains for poor students. Socio-economic integration, in schools known as the “green zone, produced even better outcomes, however. In contrast to most of the more conventional “reforms” since NCLB, Montgomery County not only cut the math achievement gap by half, but it cut the reading gap by 1/3rd.
Kahlenberg sets a seemingly doable goal – the reduction of economic segregation by 50%. He persuasively recounts successes by local districts showing that it could be time to move beyond disappointing test-driven “reforms” and to break up concentrations of poverty. He also notes that the rise of poverty in suburban districts could create venues for magnet schools that provide incentives for affluent families and top teachers to transfer to economically diverse schools. And, he even recounts a victory on the federal front; Senator Tom Harkin favors magnet schools as an option for turning around schools under School Improvement Grants.
In fact, Kahlenberg says that Michelle Rhee, the archetypical “reformer” who has ridiculed anti-poverty efforts, has acknowledged “research shows that socioeconomic integration clearly benefits low-income kids.” So, it should be possible to persuade Education Secretary Arne Duncan to reconsider his one-legged stool – his “move-the-adults” SIG turnarounds that ignore the role of students and the community in schooling. Kahlenberg thus addresses educators’ most maddening dilemma, the difficulty of convincing many liberals and the Obama administration to look at social science evidence.
I won’t hold my breath, but what if Duncan deemphasized the punitive models that his SIG encourages and encouraged districts to devise a new model based socio-economic integration? In districts such as my 88% low-income Oklahoma City School System, we already have a surplus of magnet schools and selective charters. We simply don’t have enough non-poor students. We have plenty of inner city students who surreptitiously attend low-poverty suburban schools, however. So, for systems like ours, why not help students openly cross district boundaries and attend the schools of their choice? Now that major concentrations of poverty have spilled out of central urban areas and into the suburbs, why not sponsor collaborative efforts where districts work together to improve educational opportunities for poor kids? In fact, a similar turnaround effort could foster more equity in gentrifying urban schools.
I will admit to being predisposed to agree with Kahlenberg’s educational analysis when I read his latest update on the research. I was still surprised, however, by the strength of his new evidence. I was equally impressed by his case that socio-economic integration has become more plausible politically.
It is sad enough that many liberals have long joined with conservatives in rejecting the best single method of overcoming the legacies of racial and economic injustice. But, if we cannot convince Arne Duncan and President Obama to face the facts of school improvement, that would be doubly tragic. So, I finished Kahlenberg’s article torn between the conclusion that his argument should convince the administration and other liberals reformers and the suspicion that the time has still not come for the reform that makes the most sense.