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Integrating Rich and Poor Matters Most
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of "All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice" and the editor of "The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy."
UPDATED MAY 21, 2012, 12:16 PM
Fifty-eight years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, segregated schools – particularly those segregated by economic status – remain wholly unequal. While the news media routinely shower attention on high-poverty schools that work, research shows that middle-class schools are 22 times more likely to be high performing than high-poverty schools.
Poor children can learn to high levels, but they are much more likely to do so if they are surrounded by peers with big dreams, a community of parents who are in a position to volunteer in class and know how to hold school officials accountable and talented teachers with high expectations.
We need zoning that lets low-income families live in middle-class areas, money for magnet schools and incentives for middle-class schools to welcome low-income students.
These conditions are much more likely to be found in middle-class schools. It also explains why low-income students, given the chance to attend more affluent schools, tested two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools, on the fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics. Controlling for the issue of self-election, research in Montgomery County, Md., found that low-income students randomly assigned with their families to public housing units in low-poverty neighborhoods and schools performed much higher in math than comparable students assigned to higher-poverty neighborhoods and schools – even though the latter spent $2,000 more per pupil.
Socioeconomic integration is being pursued in 80 school districts throughout the country, educating 4 million students, with very positive results. Well-designed plans don’t rely on compulsory-style busing like that used in the 1970s but instead on voluntary choice, and incentives like magnet schools. Socioeconomic integration policies avoid the legal problems associated with using race in student assignment.
Ninety-five percent of education reform is trying to make “separate but equal” work, but far more effective are policies that return to 19th century educator Horace Mann’s very American idea of the “common school,” where rich and poor sit together and schools seek to provide genuinely equal opportunity. To reinvent the common school today, we need better zoning policies that allow low-income families to live in middle-class neighborhoods, more funding for magnet schools that voluntarily produce integration and financial incentives for middle-class schools to welcome low-income students who wish to attend.
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