Schwartz found that public housing students who are able to attend schools in more affluent areas outperformed their peers who did not have the same opportunity. After seven years, low-income children who attended Montgomery County's most affluent elementary schools performed eight points higher in math and five points higher in reading than their peers at low-income schools.
Why it works
Policy experts are still trying to explain why economic integration has a positive impact on academic outcomes. One suggestion is that middle-income parents are better able to advocate for things that improve student performance, Schwartz said. They demand more experienced teachers, the newest resources and better access to technology.
Another possibility is that low-income students' aspirations are broadened because of their associations with more-affluent peers. For example, attending economically diverse schools helps low-income children join higher achieving social networks. This was a factor in Chan's son's impressive turnaround after moving to an economically diverse school.
More-affluent schools also have to deal with fewer behavioral disruptions, according to Duncan, so students benefit from more focused instruction time. Affluent schools also benefit from a more stable student population, Duncan said. Low-income children are twice as likely as their higher-income peers to move during the school year. "The teacher will have to spend a lot of time and energy catching some of the kids up," he said. "It is disruptive, and that takes away from the other children's instruction time."
While the evidence suggests that integrating schools by income is an effective way to close the achievement gap and fight poverty, the reality is that this kind of integration is hard. There are many reasons American schools continue to be segregated by income, according to Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of the nonprofit Bellwether education group, which studies the income achievement gap.
One reason is that there isn't enough support from taxpayers for these types of programs. "Parents who are paying the high property taxes that often accompany higher performing public schools are zealously protective of access to that amenity," he wrote in his education column for Time magazine.
Another issue is that there may not be enough non-poor students for economic integration of schools to really work. "Poverty is so widespread that in most places the mathematics of economic integration doesn't work," Rotherham said. What Rotherham is suggesting is basically that there aren't enough non-poor kids for the schools to economically intergrate.
Even Schwartz, author of the study on Montgomery County, admitted economic integration isn't a one size fits all solution. "Although hundreds of counties and cities have adopted inclusionary zoning within the U.S., it is best suited for affluent housing markets and usually only produces hundreds of affordable homes per locality. This supply pales in comparison to the millions in need of affordable housing."
Still, Duncan says school districts could take it upon themselves to draw boundaries in more economically inclusive ways. At the end of the day this boils down to an issue of economic inequality, according to Duncan.
"We have to ask ourselves to what extent we want to be a society where the levels of inequality are as high as they are. Addressing the inequality in schools is just another way of asking this question," he said.