Fighting Over Common Ground

I thought I had found a sliver of common ground.

Late last week, when I read the Century Foundation's new report, "Housing Policy is School Policy," it seemed the study made a compelling argument in favor of socio-economic school integration. Finally, I thought, an education issue upon which my friends in the progressive camp and I can agree. What a relief. It still feels strange to me to be locked in what seems like endless disagreement with people on the left.

So maybe we can agree on this. After all, one argument some local progressives use against charter schools and the brand of parental choice they represent is that they foster segregation. I don't agree with that; but integration is a core value for me, so I appreciate the impulse to integration implied in the critique.

But now, after reading an article by a progressive blogger highly critical of the study, I have to wonder. More about that article below. First, a snapshot of the Century Foundation study. You can read a cogent synopsis of the study here.

If you don't feel like clicking on a link, here is a 10-second summary.

The study examines Montgomery County, Md., an affluent suburban county adjacent to Washington, D.C. The county had the foresight in 1976 to pass an inclusionary zoning law, requiring new housing developments to include homes affordable to people of moderate means. It also required those developments to set aside one-third of the subsidized homes for the local public housing authority, opening developments to very low income families.

Century Foundation researcher Heather Schwartz examined seven years worth of longitudinal data for 850 Montgomery County students who live in that set-aside public housing. Schwartz found that in math especially, low-income students attending more affluent schools performed well enough to narrow achievement gaps considerably. Reading gaps narrowed as well, but did not reach statistical significance.

This study represents one of the most methodologically rigorous and compelling arguments for socio-economic school integration ever published. Montgomery County is not the perfect proving ground, because there are no very high poverty schools there. So the basis of comparison is how low-income students do in very affluent schools versus moderately affluent ones. Still, the data are compelling.

So when I read Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss' piece dismissing the study, I felt depressed. What is Strauss' beef? She has a couple. First, the study suggests that schools can play a huge role in mitigating the effects of poverty on student achievement. It's a societal problem, Strauss argues, requiring a broader response. Don't pin all the responsibility on schools. And second, she says, standardized tests are a lousy measure of student learning.

It's not JUST the school. That's not to say that schools don't matter. Of course they do. Kids who attend schools that are well-resourced, well-managed and well-staffed are bound to perform better than kids who attend schools that aren't, and, the more troubled schools in our country are almost always found in high-poverty areas.

And, of course, integration of neighborhoods and schools should be seen as rooted in the country's core values.

But the stubborn fact remains that without attacking the roots of poverty, we will never close the stubborn achievement gap. Putting poor kids in middle-class schools will help some of them, and that's a good thing, but the real answer is alleviating poverty...

We can build zillions of charter schools and give standardized tests to kids every day of the week and fire tons of teachers and close a lot of traditional public schools.

Our problems won't go away in education because we still will be ignoring the obvious.

This is why it's so hard to find common ground. We can't talk about the issue in front of us, even an important one like the benefits of socio-economic integration, without someone twisting it back to a subject at best only tangentially related.

Yes, we should attack the root causes of poverty. But has there been a society in all of human history that has been successful in that endeavor? The answer, of course, is no. So doesn't it make sense to make every effort to mitigate the effects of poverty at the same time we're playing Sisyphus?

By the way, I've gotten mirror-image arguments against focusing on integration from people on the other side of the issue. "Well of course integration would be nice, in a fantasy world," they say. "But since we now have some school models that prove high-poverty schools can succeed, why absorb the brain damage involved in trying to promote integration?"


In any event, formulating housing policy in and around Denver to promote school integration would be a huge uphill battle. Denver has had an inclusionary zoning ordinance since 2002, but it is watery gruel compared to the Montgomery County law, according to researcher (and former Albuquerque mayor) David Rusk, who has studied Denver and Montgomery County extensively. And the business community raised a major ruckus about even that relatively weak law.

Under Denver's ordinance, Rusk wrote in a 2003, book-length exploration of school integration (or lack thereof) in metro Denver, income limits aren't set nearly as low as in Montgomery County, there are no set-asides for public housing and it's relatively easy for developers to buy their way out of the requirements. So its impact is minimal at best.

So yes, socio-economic integration is harder to achieve in Denver and Colorado than in some other places. A couple of reasons:
  • In Colorado, open enrollment law allows parents to send their children to any school they choose, if space is available. That's a good thing, and at the same time it poses challenges
  • In cities like Denver and Aurora, there are so many low-income students that integrating schools to optimal levels (under 40 percent poor, research suggests) is impossible.
Despite those formidable obstacles, however, the state as a whole or individual districts could take a policy position that economically integrating schools works, and therefore should be a primary value and strategy, to the greatest extent possible. We may never even get close to the promised land, but we won't know until we try. We need look only at the superb Denver School of Science and Technology, where a healthy economic mix is etched in stone, for some inspiration.

Other than DSST, though, no one around here is even trying. I believe district and state leaders are scared of the political blowback.

How sad.