Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, would probably answer in the affirmative. If you woke up this morning to The Washington Post on your doorstep, you would have read that the answer is an even more definitive yes.
Is it? Is socioeconomic integration the magic bullet that can boost the academic achievement of the poor? Is there a “growing body of evidence,” as Kahlenberg suggests, driving a movement to consider this controversial approach to achieving parity in educational outcomes?
Careful thought would suggest that the answer could not be as clear-cut as The Post would have you believe. The problem is that the “growing body of evidence” fails to distinguish between socioeconomic integration and the other consequences of socioeconomic integration as being the driving force for the boost, if any, in academic achievement. For example, is it possible that the socioeconomic integration of a school resulted in a larger proportion of parents who demanded a higher quality of teaching, a more conducive learning environment, etc., leading to the boost in academic achievement among the poor? In other words, correlation between socioeconomic integration and a boost in academic achievement does not equate to causation. Indeed, in 2007 Kahlenberg reached the conclusion that socioeconomic integration does boost achievement based on descriptive data and little effort to control for potential confounding factors.
It is well-established that schools with higher proportions of students from backgrounds of poverty are assigned teachers of lower quality. It is also known that these schools often suffer from higher teacher turnover rates, etc. For example, Goldhaber and his coauthors, in a descriptive analysis, found “that in elementary school, middle school, and high school classrooms, virtually every measure of teacher quality we examine—experience, licensure exam scores, and value added—is inequitably distributed across every indicator of student disadvantage—free/reduced-price lunch status, underrepresented minority, and low prior academic performance.” Thus, one must give equal consideration to the possibility that socioeconomic integration of schools produce a superior schools environment, which in turn boosts academic achievement.
Well, we are getting ahead of ourselves. The Post reached its conclusions based on a paper recently published in Urban Education. The authors themselves are less enthusiastic about their conclusions, asserting in the abstract that their “analysis indicates that the improvement in math scores may be partially due to school composition changes attributable to the income-based assignment plan.” That is not to minimize the fact that the authors only found “a small increase in reading and math test scores and a narrowing of the Black-White test score gap.” The evidence, it seems, is far from conclusive.
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), the largest school district in Maryland, serves a community that has long seen itself as enlightened and progressive. In 2010, The Century Foundation focused on the district for a report on the housing policy and student achievement. Heather Schwartz, the author of the study concluded, that “the children in public housing who attended low-poverty schools began to catch up to their non-poor district-mates over the course of elementary school; by the end, they had cut their initial achievement gap in half.”
To reach her conclusions, Schwartz relied on data from state tests that the district claims have “proven to be pretty unreliable measures.” For good measure, the superintendent at the time, Jerry D. Weast, and the then President of the Board of Education (BoE), Patricia O’Neill in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, label the state tests “poorly constructed tests of questionable reliability or purpose.” Clearly, Schwartz’s conclusions were of dubious value.
The research suggests that the consequences of economic integration on classroom achievement, at best, are not well understood. Basing education policy on descriptive studies, those that are based on measures of questionable reliability or purpose, or studies that suggest minor positive effects are, at best, counter to the public interest.
The growing body of evidence seems to suggest a crucial need for evidence based, peer-reviewed, robust, scientific research in education.