Spreading the Middle Class Kids Around?

David L. Kirp, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that the key to improving early childhood education outcomes for poor children is to include them in mixed-income classrooms:

A 2007 Connecticut study found that poor children who attended economically mixed prekindergarten classes progressed from well below the national average in crucial language skills to just above it during the course of the school year, while those in low-income-only classes remained below the norm. A new evaluation of Boston’s heralded preschools reaches the same conclusion — peers matter. “Vocabulary and background knowledge play a major role in student learning,” says Jason Sachs, who runs the Boston program, “and interacting with mixed-income students allows for richer discussions among students.” (In achievement and other measures, well-off kids in integrated settings do neither better nor worse.)

Kirp also makes a political argument, namely that broadening Head Start to include middle-income families will lead to more political pressure for increased funding:

While parents without money are obliged to take what they can get, better-off parents will insist on the best for their kids. Confronted with those demands, elected officials are more likely to spend what’s needed to deliver first-rate early education. An economic analysis of political support for redistribution, prepared for the World Bank, concludes that the poor are actually worse off when a program like Head Start targets them exclusively.

Just as many on the left want to “spread the wealth around,” Kirp calls for spreading the middle class kids around. But where exactly will they come from? 

Kirp leaves a number of assumptions unexamined. He takes for granted that higher funding necessarily means superior outcomes (the evidence for this claim is not strong), that the results of one 2007 Connecticut study are replicable in other environments under different conditions, and that well-off kids in integrated settings will always do neither better nor worse, regardless of what integration means — for example, is it possible that well-off kids might start to do worse once some threshold is passed? What share of the classroom has to consist of children from middle-income households? And is it only income that matters, or does family structure matter as well?

Let’s assume that Kirp is right and that programs like Head Start will only work if they integrate children from low-income households with children from middle-income and affluent households. Where exactly will the middle-income children come from?

Recently, David Frum observed that U.S. immigration policy has contributed to the increase in the share of U.S.-born children living in poverty- or near-poverty. Remarkably, there is no broad consensus that we shouldn’t continue this policy — indeed, many policymakers believe that we ought to go even further in this direction. If we really do care about socioeconomic integration, we ought to consider policies that constrain the influx of less-skilled adults, as wages for the less-skilled are such that their children are almost certain to be raised in low-income households. 

Part of the reason children in middle-income households fare better than children in low-income households is that they are less likely to be raised in disrupted families that experience high levels of union instability and multiple-partner fertility. Yet union stability and multiple-partner fertility are growing more common in the U.S., and stable families are often inclined to insulate themselves from the consequences of family disruption by moving to neighborhoods where most children are raised in nonpoor, stable families. It’s not clear to me how Kirp would address this perfectly understandable desire on the part of parents.

I’ve argued that cities and states ought to relax local land-use regulations and invest more resources in crime prevention in part because such cities will tend to be more economically integrated. Middle-income households will be more likely to settle in, and to remain in, cities with low crime rates and affordable high-quality housing. Even in the best-case scenario, however, it’s not clear that we’ll ever be able to guarantee that all schools will be socioeconomically integrated, particularly if fertility rates are lower for educated middle-income families than for less-educated low-income families. (One thing we’ve learned about K–12 education is that summer learning loss is a serious problem for students from low-income households. It makes sense that students from disadvantaged backgrounds might get additional schooling over the summer months, as they are most in need of the targeted intervention.)

This, incidentally, is why the charter movement is so important. The fundamental idea behind the charter movement is that new schools can introduce new instructional models that are better suited to the needs of niche populations. And it is why it is dangerous that the bureaucratization of charter schooling is so dangerous, as Frederick Hess and Michael McShane argue in a new op-ed in USA Today:

In New Orleans, the city with the largest charter school market share, charter schools have been pressured to adopt a standardized discipline system, and a standardized enrollment procedure. That could be a big problem for “no excuses” schools with strict discipline and other innovative schools if they aren’t able to select classes with the best opportunity to benefit from their unique approaches. In Washington D.C. advocates for “controlled choice” have put forward plans to engineer the racial and economic makeup of schools through the use of “weighted” admissions lotteries and de facto quotas.

In each of these cases, well intentioned central planners have tried to bring about their particular idea of efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness. But regulations tend to be a one way ratchet. Once in place, it is usually impossible to do away with them. These changes risk remaking the charter school as a new version of the very system it is trying to replace. In short, if this regulatory impulse is left unchecked, it’s all too possible that the high achieving charter school of today could become the failing public school of tomorrow.

It could be that socioeconomic integration is the only way to make Head Start work. It is also possible that what we need are new models that will work better for some students in some places. We won’t get these new models if we regulate them out of existence. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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