How Important Is Economic Diversity In Schools?

A new study shows that low-income students perform better in schools with economic diversity. Host Michel Martin discusses the study with Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation behind the study, and Jerry Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, if you don't remember the name Tommie Smith, then you might remember that iconic photograph of him from the Olympics. He is the American sprinter who won gold in the Mexico City Olympics, and then received his medal standing on the winner's stand with his head down, raising his gloved fist into the air. He is now selling his gold medal, and we'll try to find out why.

But first, we want to talk about whether economic integration is a more powerful tool to improve student performance than may have been previously believed. That's part of our ongoing look at education in America.

Today, we want to talk about a new study based in a suburban jurisdiction outside of Washington, D.C. that suggests that low income students perform better when they attend more affluent elementary schools than they do when they attend schools with a majority of low income students.

To talk more about the study, we've called Richard Kahlenberg. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. He supervised and published the study. Also with us is Montgomery County superintendent of schools, Jerry Weast. And I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Mr. RICHARD KAHLENBERG (Senior Fellow, Century Foundation): Well, thanks for having me.

Dr. JERRY WEAST (Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools): And thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Mr. Kahlenberg, what motivated this study?

Mr. KAHLENBERG: Heather Schwartz, the author of this study, she wanted to examine, really to look at - compare two programs. In Montgomery County, Maryland, Dr. Weast has implemented a very important program to invest extra funds into high poverty schools, and it's really a national model.

But what was interesting is that Heather Schwartz found that if students had the opportunity to go to a more affluent school under Montgomery County's housing programs, they perform quite a bit better even than in these model programs that Dr. Weast implemented.

MARTIN: So, Dr. Weast, just to clarify this for us, is it that the economic integration idea - was that an intentional policy of the school district or was is a byproduct of a larger policy to integrate the county to offer affordable housing throughout the county?

Dr. WEAST: It is the latter. We're very visionary, I think, as a county to understand how this economic integration works. If you can pull it off successfully, it is the best model. The problem is it's a very far reach for lots of counties and jurisdictions because of the cost and because of just the numbers of kids who are in poverty.

MARTIN: Just to clarify for people who aren't familiar with the Washington, D.C. area, Montgomery County is among the top 20 wealthiest counties in the nation. Less than 5 percent of the residents live in poverty overall compared to a national rate of about 15 percent.

And as Mr. Weast pointed out, an increasing share of the county's population is living in poverty. That might have something to do with a lot of things. It could be integration patterns. It could be the recession and so forth. And so as a consequence of that, there have been various policies over the years to create more affordable housing. Let me read a couple paragraphs from the study.

(Reading) Students in public housing who were randomly assigned to low poverty elementary schools significantly outperformed their peers in public housing who attended moderate poverty schools in both math and reading. And further, by the end of elementary school, the initial large achievement gap between children in public housing who attended the most advantaged schools and their non-poor students in the district was cut by half for math and one-third for reading.

So, Richard Kahlenberg, I want to ask you, why do you think that is?

Mr. KAHLENBERG: I think there are three reasons that they do better. A given student who gets to go to a more affluent school is going to be surrounded by peers who have big dreams, expect to go on to college, are academically engaged, less likely to cut class and cause discipline problems.

Then there's the issue of parents. Affluent parents are about four times as likely to be members of the PTA as low income parents. So they know how to hold school officials accountable.

Now, the third advantage has to do with the teachers. The best teachers are attracted to most favorable working conditions, really. And that's more likely to be found in middle class schools. And the problem is that, nationally, we just push this issue entirely aside.

If you look at what the Obama administration is focused on, they're all about, let's try to make the high poverty schools work. When we know separate schools for rich and poor are never going to be equal. And we want to find a way to allow more low income students to go to these economically mixed schools.

MARTIN: Well, the question I think some people would ask are, number one, is there still an element of self-selection involved? If the parents - even if they're low income, kind of figure out, well, gee, I've got to figure out how to get into that system, might that not have some effect on student performance? So the first question I have is, do you think there's a still a self-selection involved here?

Dr. WEAST: There might be a bit of self-selection. The fact that they were in schools that have less than 20 percent poverty might have had on a factor. But I think we need to be keen on what Richard's research and what the national research tells us.

If you're in a school that has very low poverty and very high expectations and you don't have very far to go to that school, for example, you're not getting bused or, you know, it's not very inconvenient, and you're accepted in that school and that school has a good reputation, you tend to really play to the level of that competition.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new study that suggests that low income students who attend more affluent schools perform better than those who attend schools in high poverty areas. And we are speaking with Richard Kahlenberg from the Century Foundation that supervised the study, and Jerry Weast, superintendent of the Montgomery County Public School system, which is the jurisdiction that was the subject of the study.

Mr. Kahlenberg, you wanted to add something?

Mr. KAHLENBERG: We know nationally that low income students who are in middle class schools are two years ahead of low income students in high poverty schools. But people say, well, that's just because they knew how to - you have motivated parents who got into the good schools.

Well, Heather Schwartz's study, the Century Foundation's study controls for that, because they looked at students and families who were randomly assigned -some got assigned to higher poverty schools, some were assigned to lower poverty schools. There wasn't any self-selection here. And that's what's so powerful about this study.

MARTIN: That kind of leads us really to the nut of this conversation, which is what are the implications for discussions about how to improve educational opportunity for kids who were already starting out at a disadvantage? I mean, is the issue what happens at home? Maybe they're dealing with some chaos at home and deprivation at home, or is the relevant factor what happens at school?

So, what does this study suggest to you and your experience suggest to you about where the focus should be?

Dr. WEAST: The implications, in my opinion, are a combination of trying to differentiate it - kinds of funding to schools that have high poverty. Give plenty of choices, try to work with your communities to get the distributed housing, and work together to try to keep solutions of involvement of families. And it's very important what goes on in school. All those are implications from this study.

MARTIN: Mr. Kahlenberg, final thought from you? What do you think the implications are?

Mr. KAHLENBERG: I think the major implication is that our housing policies need to be changed in order to allow more economic integration. There are creative ways to create integrated schools. You can use magnet incentives, and likewise there are transfer programs. In about eight school districts, municipalities across the country, there are intra-district programs where city students are allowed to go to suburban schools. But there has to be a financial incentive involved.

MARTIN: Jerry Weast is a superintendent of schools for Montgomery County in Maryland. That school district was the subject of a study by the Century Foundation. It's called "Housing Policy is School Policy: Economically Integrated Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland." Superintendent Weast joined us from his office. That study was supervised by Richard Kahlenberg. He's a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. And he was with us from our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. KAHLENBERG: Pleasure to be here.

Dr. WEAST: Thank you.

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