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How housing narrows the achievement gap

Published: Monday, Oct. 29 2012 8:32 p.m. MDT

In a April 22, 2011 photo, prospective Washington University tour the campus in St. Louis. Its $40,000 annual price tag aside, Washington University's commitment to luring more low-income students rivals if not exceeds that of most other elite American colleges.

Jeff Roberson, Associated Press

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It's hardly news that an achievement gap exists between children from high-income and low-income families in the United States. Although policymakers, politicians and educators work tirelessly to decrease these differentials, new evidence suggests the gap is actually growing.

In a 2011 study, Sean Reardon, professor of education at Stanford University, found that "the achievement gap between children from high- and low‐income families is roughly 30‐40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty‐five years earlier."

While in-school initiatives tend to receive the bulk of policy attention, programs that affect children’s lives outside school walls may be just as important. A study by Heather Schwartz found that placement of low-income housing is one out of school investment that can have a huge impact on children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

Schwartz tracked 850 children from low-income families in Montgomery County, Maryland. Montgomery ranks among the top 20 wealthiest counties in the nation and has the 16th largest school district in the nation.

The zoning policy in Montgomery County requires real estate developers to set aside a portion of the homes to be allotted for public housing. As a result, families with incomes below the poverty line have been able to live in Montgomery County's affluent neighborhoods and send their children to schools where the vast majority of students come from middle- or upper-class families.

Just as there is a big achievement gap among children from different backgrounds, there is a gap between low and high poverty schools. At low poverty schools there tends to be more stability, more experienced staff and administrators and more parental involvement.

Scwartz 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.

From the report:

"The longer students attended low poverty schools, the better they performed relative to their peers. After seven years, children living in public housing who attended Montgomery County’s most affluent half of elementary schools performed eight points higher in math and five points higher in reading than otherwise similar public housing children who attended schools where more than 20 percent of the student body qualified for free or reduced-price meals than otherwise similar public housing children who attended schools where more than 20 percent of the student body qualified for free or reduced-price meals."

Schwartz even found that the benefits of attending a low poverty school exceed attending a higher spending but also higher poverty school. For example, the county spends $2,000 extra per pupil at the neediest schools. However these investments don't touch the benefits of simply attending a low poverty school. "Children living in public housing enrolled in low poverty schools still performed better over time than public housing children in extra resource schools."

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