Anna Chan of Dallas was a single mom, worked full time and struggling to put herself though college. The cost of higher education put a strain on her already tight budget. To make things work financially, she decided to rent an apartment in a low-income area. It meant Chan's 5-year-old son, Justice, would begin school at one of the lowest performing public elementary schools in the state. Because Justice was young, and knew how to read going into kindergarten, Chan thought a few years at a low-performing school wouldn't be too detrimental.
By the end of the school year, she saw firsthand the impact of attending a low-income, low-performing school. Justice was disengaged, struggled with writing and mathematics and had a negative attitude about learning.
Concerned about the long-term consequences of attending this school, Chan moved mountains to enroll her son in a better-performing public school. Though it meant driving her son almost 60 miles every day to and from school, Chan says it has been worth it. Her son is doing well in school, has joined school clubs and has made friends who expose him to a range of possibilities that would never be on his radar had he stayed at his old school.
Unlike the Chans, most low-income families don't have many options when it comes to choosing schools for their children. School boundaries are determined by school districts, according to Greg Duncan, professor of education at UC Irvine.
In many cases, the lines are drawn in such a way that all the low-income children in the district are put in one school and the middle- and high-income children in others. This economic segregation has been linked to huge gaps in school performance on academic achievement tests.
A recent Brookings Institute study shows that the average low-income student, one who qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunches, attends a school that scores in the 42nd percentile on state tests. The average middle- or high-income student, on the other hand, attends a school whose average state test scores are in the 61st percentile.
Although policymakers and educators are trying to reduce income-based achievement gaps, new evidence suggests the spread between the rich and the poor is growing. Since the 1960s, the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students has grown by 40 percent, according to a 2011 study by Sean Reardon of Stanford University.
Discussions about closing this gap typically include reducing class sizes, improving teacher quality and setting higher expectations for students. But one of the most effective solutions to this problem — finding ways to bring economically diverse groups of students together in the same classrooms — gets little play in education policy circles, according to a new study by Heather Scwartz of the RAND Corporation.
Montgomery County, Maryland, ranks among the top 20 wealthiest counties in the United States and has the 16th largest school district in the nation. The zoning regulations there require real estate developers to set aside a portion of the homes they build 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.
Given these unique circumstances, Montgomery County is an ideal place to study economic integration. Schwartz followed 850 low-income students who lived in public housing in affluent neighborhoods in Montgomery County. Schwartz tracked their performances and compared them to low-income children who did not attend integrated schools.
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.