The Challenge of Overcoming Poverty

Sadly, 10 to 15 years after leaving neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, children who participated in the Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing (MTO) program showed no significant educational achievement gains. A study of 4,604 families that moved to a new neighborhood found that adults benefitted modestly, but the trajectories of students did not change.

Families that moved to a neighborhood with a poverty rate at least 13 percent lower benefitted from better mental and physical health, and their improvement in well-being "was equal to getting a pay raise of $13,000 -- a huge boost for participants, who had an average income at the time of $20,000 a year."

Also, girls whose families moved to wealthier neighborhoods had lower rates of obesity and better mental health than those who didn't. The move appeared to hurt boys, however, as they were less likely to be on track to graduate and more likely to smoke than boys whose families had not moved.

The moving students were not particularly at-risk, educationally, in that their percentage of learning problems (11 percent) and emotional or behavioral problems (6 percent) were not unrepresentative. Their new schools, however, were only slightly less poor (both sets of schools were around 70 percent low income) and segregated (90 percent minority).

Basically, the study indicates that families that move to somewhat less poor neighborhoods saw modest gains, while students who moved to schools that might have been slightly better saw no gains. That is disappointing but not particularly surprising.

Of course, some school "reformers" will gloat and cite the study in arguing against Richard Kahlenberg's call for socio-economic integration. But, the findings are consistent with Kahlenberg's research. He proposes well-planned efforts to integrate poor children of color into low poverty, high performing schools. The study simply shows that leaving the toughest neighborhoods isn't enough and half-hearted school reform efforts don't work.

We who seek holistic and coordinated efforts to improve schools must not repeat the mistakes of bubble-in "reformers" and refuse to face bad news. Roland Fryer, who is studying the effectiveness of the Harlem Children Zone (HCZ) is also studying the MTO data. If he learns from it, as opposed to assuming that it confirms his previous theories (that included a heavy dose of teacher-bashing), that will be all to the good.

Progressive educators should remember one reason why we have faced a generation of test-driven silver bullets. Even before NCLB, our schools suffered from one equally simplistic quick fix after another. And as Paul Tough explains, the accountability-driven "reform" movement was, in part, a legacy of liberal post traumatic shock from losing (or not winning) the War on Poverty. Overcoming intense concentrations of extreme poverty and trauma was too difficult, so "reformers" deputized teachers to transform outcomes for poor children of color.

Yes, we must address the socio-economic and the socio-emotional, and we must invest in prenatal care, early education, and teaching children to read for comprehension by third grade. Those policies can only work, however, if implemented with fidelity. Realistic reforms that address peer pressure will require as much alignment, coordination, and trial and error as was invested in aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessments. In fact, we face the far greater challenges of combining all of the above into schools. We cannot afford the "reformers'" luxury of spinning research and pretending that poverty would be overcome if we just undermined collective bargaining and used test scores and charter schools to get rid of teachers with "low expectations."