Politics & Policy

From Baltic Avenue to Boardwalk

Where does it end?

It’s tough to know what to make of them, those who cling to the idea that social engineering will cure the ailments of public education’s sickest parts. John Edwards belongs in that camp. His solution to academic torpor includes forced socioeconomic integration of classrooms and the creation of “a million housing vouchers over five years to help low-income families move to better neighborhoods.”

The latest blow to the assumptions of Edwards and his ilk comes from a pair of reports, featured in the forthcoming issue of Education Next. The reports illustrate, among other things, that children of low-income families who moved from high-poverty neighborhoods to areas where they had “substantially fewer poor and substantially more educated neighbors” showed no academic improvement.

This reinforces two points. First: Socioeconomic integration is not a panacea for educational ills. Second: As professor Stefanie DeLuca writes in Ed Next, “poor families are not just wealthy families without a bankbook.” A move to the suburbs may have some positive consequences for low-income children — indeed, it may be a necessary condition for certain individuals to emerge from poverty — but it is surely not sufficient to improve their educational performance.

If we want to see low-income students do better in school, we need to focus our efforts on schools, not on moving kids from Baltic Avenue to Boardwalk and everywhere in between. Poor parents need information about the good schools in their midst (information they’re not currently receiving), and they need to understand that quality classrooms will make a positive impact on their children.

Authors of one of the Ed Next articles examined 1994-1997 data from the Moving to Opportunity program (MTO), which awarded housing vouchers to low-income families in five American cities: Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Only those families who lived in a public-housing development where the poverty rate was at least 40 percent were eligible to enter the MTO lottery (during the program’s first year, each family who won an MTO voucher could use it to move only into neighborhoods where the poverty rate was lower than 10 percent).

During MTO’s first four years, 4,248 families entered the lottery for vouchers. About 1,209 of them were offered unrestricted vouchers, which could be used anywhere, even in another high-poverty neighborhood. About 1,729 families were offered MTO vouchers, and 1,310 were offered no voucher (they became the control group).

MTO families moved to areas with poverty rates averaging 12.6 percent lower than those of the control families (not as dramatic a difference as the program’s designers might have hoped). And MTO families sent their children to schools which, on average, scored only slightly higher on state exams but were more socioeconomically integrated than schools attended by control group students.

Did the MTO kids improve academically? No. The researchers put “the impact of moving with a restricted voucher at four-hundredths of a standard-deviation increase in combined reading and math test scores, and the estimate is not statistically significant.” Plopping kids into classrooms (and neighborhoods) that are socioeconomically integrated is not the way to boost academic achievement.

Between July 2003 and June 2004, DeLuca and colleagues interviewed MTO parents about their children’s educational experiences, in part to determine why some parents who could’ve sent their students to decent suburban schools did not.

The responses suggest that many MTO parents simply underestimate the educational differences between quality schools and lousy ones. A respondent told DeLuca, “…you can send a hard head to a private school and it’s not gonna make a bit of difference. You can send a good child to what you might think a not-so-good school and as long as they focus and pay attention it’ll benefit them.”

DeLuca concludes: “While neighborhood change could be a necessary condition to protect children and improve their schooling, it is not sufficient in light of the deep morass of issues that characterize the lives of the urban poor.”

That’s why all parents — urban poor or suburban wealthy — need information about the quality of their local schools, and they need it delivered in a simple, non-muddled way. Inner-city parents should especially be targeted by disseminators of such information. Such parents must be shown that despite their years of enduring mostly nasty neighborhood schools, quality classrooms are possible and do make a difference.

The ongoing social shuffle is a dance whose steps grow tiresome. Time to stop the music and get down to business.

Liam Julian is associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a Hoover Institution research fellow.


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