Education Opinion

An Unambitious Legacy

By Richard D. Kahlenberg — February 21, 2001 9 min read
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We urgently need to find better ways to improve the education of minority and low-income students. But a narrow focus on spending disparities is seriously misplaced.

In one of his last acts as president, Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13190, creating a new Presidential Commission on Educational Resource Equity. Announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as part of Mr. Clinton’s effort to promote “One America,” the 13-member panel is designed to address “long- standing gaps in access to educational resources,” particularly “disparities based on race and ethnicity.”

The impetus behind creating the commission is unassailable: We urgently need to find better ways to improve the education of minority and low-income students. But the narrow focus on spending disparities (particularly by race) is seriously misplaced. It touches on only one element of school inequality, and curiously ignores 40 years of social science research evidence on the significance of other factors. Far more important to the question of inequality—and to the goal of One America—is finding ways to reduce the separation of schoolchildren by class as well as race.

The language authorizing the presidential commission is strikingly anachronistic and echoes a provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which called for a study to examine inequality between white and black schools. The assumption behind the study—and the assumption of the project’s primary author, James S. Coleman—was that the funding differences between such schools would be large, and that these differences would provide the central explanation for unequal achievement results between blacks and whites.

Mr. Coleman and his colleagues found that school funding was not closely related to achievement.

In 1966, after conducting what was then the second-largest social science research project in history, Mr. Coleman and his colleagues announced a number of surprising findings. First, the disparities in funding between schools attended by blacks and whites were far smaller than anticipated. Second, funding was not closely related to achievement (family economic status was far more predictive). Third, a different kind of resource—peers—mattered a great deal. Going to school with advantaged peers was an advantage, while going to school with disadvantaged peers was a disadvantage—above and beyond an individual’s family circumstances.

Some (though not all) of what the Coleman Report found has been confirmed by subsequent research. The spending gap by race is infinitesimal. According to Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips’ 1998 book, The Black-White Test Score Gap, “the average black child and the average white child now live in school districts that spend almost exactly the same amount per pupil.” The authors cite research finding that in 1992, the average black student lived in a district spending just $10 less per student annually than the average white student ($5,387 vs. $5,397).

Spending disparities instead appear more closely related to class: Wealthy districts spend about twice as much as poor districts. This funding disparity by economic class is especially poignant because most educators believe it is more expensive to educate disadvantaged children than advantaged children. (By contrast, there is nothing per se more expensive about educating an African-American child than a white child).

Coleman’s second finding—on the ineffectiveness of spending—has held up less well; and while economists continue to argue over the degree to which “spending matters” to raising achievement, good experiments show that certain targeted spending can have positive effects. But Coleman’s larger point—that spending is only part of what matters to education, and that peers have a significant impact too—has been replicated time and time again, making the Clinton commission’s truncated focus all the more disturbing.

If you ask educators what makes for a good school—one where children are likely to achieve at high levels and go on to do well in life—they are likely to mention a number of factors, including these: (1) an adequate financial base (as measured against student needs) to provide small class sizes, modern equipment, and the like; (2) a place where money is spent wisely, on the classroom rather than on bureaucracy; (3) an orderly environment; (4) a stable student and teacher population; (5) well-qualified teachers trained in the subjects they are teaching; (6) a meaty curriculum and high expectations; (7) active parental involvement; (8) motivated peers who value achievement and encourage it among their classmates; (9) high-achieving peers whose knowledge is shared informally with classmates all day long; and (10) well-connected peers who will help provide access to jobs down the line. If the Clinton approach addresses only one of 10 factors, is there anything that could systematically address them all?

It turns out that all 10 items are closely associated with the socioeconomic makeup of a school. Not only does per capita expenditure correlate with student economic status, so, too, does efficient spending: In low-income areas, pressure is intense to make education a jobs program, so bureaucracies are more likely to be bloated. Low-income schools report disorder problems twice as often as middle-class schools. High-poverty schools see more than twice as much student mobility as low-poverty schools, and teacher mobility is four times as high. Teachers in high-poverty schools are more likely to be unlicensed, more likely to teach outside their fields of expertise, more likely to have low teacher test scores, more likely to be inexperienced, and more likely to have less formal education. Even when paid comparable salaries, teachers consider it a promotion to move from poor to middle-class schools, and the best teachers usually transfer out of low-income schools at the first opportunity. Curriculum in high-poverty schools is more watered down; and expectations are so low that the grade of A in low-income schools is the same as a grade of C in middle- class schools, as measured by standardized-tests results. In many low-income schools, Advanced Placement classes and high-level math are not even offered.

In low-income schools, parents are four times less likely to be members of the PTA and much less likely to participate in fund raising. Peers in these schools are less academically engaged, less likely to do homework, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to cut class, and less likely to graduate—all of which have been found to influence the behavior of classmates. Likewise, in low- income schools, peers come to school with about half the vocabulary of middle- class children, so any given child is less likely to expand his vocabulary through informal interaction. And children attending high-poverty schools are cut off from access to informal connections that serve middle-class children well in finding jobs after graduation.

For all these reasons, and more, separate schools for low-income children are inherently unequal, even when funding is equalized. Alarmingly, over the past several years, residential poverty concentrations have grown, and during the Clinton years, American schools grew increasingly resegregated by race, according to data from Harvard University’s School Desegregation Project. To be fair, Mr. Clinton was no John D. Ashcroft. It was the judiciary that was responsible for lifting desegregation orders in numerous cities and actively overturning even voluntary integration efforts in places like Montgomery County, Md. But the Clinton administration offered no creative new strategies to address the pressing new legal realities and, instead, pursued a plan of essentially accepting poverty concentrations as a given, while targeting greater funding toward high-poverty schools.

During the Clinton years, American schools grew increasingly resegregated by race, according to data from Harvard University’s School Desegregation Project.

Some localities, however, saw a legal way of promoting racial integration indirectly and getting at the core issue of poverty concentrations: school integration by income. In Wake County, N.C., for example, officials responded to legal attacks on the use of race in student assignment by adopting a plan last year in which no school would have more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, or more than 25 percent of students reading below grade level.

The plan was based on research findings that low-income children gain, and middle-class children are not hurt, by income integration where a majority of the children in a school are middle-class. Because the majority population in a school tends to set the tone, income integration doesn’t merely spread more evenly problems like student disruption or low aspirations; these problems decline altogether. It is also important to note that because low-income children are more influenced by peers and by school environment than are middle- class children, income integration makes it is possible to harmonize achievement upward.

Bill Clinton, the policy wonk, is surely well aware of these education findings. Moreover, he knows the importance of integration to achieving One America and has often said that his views on race were forged in the battle over desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in his home state of Arkansas. But Mr. Clinton, the politician, knows that dealing with inequity in financing is less threatening than school integration, and that busing is a political nonstarter.

There is good reason to believe, however, that income integration in the new century will fare far better than the forced busing for racial integration of the 1970s. Today’s parents are more socially tolerant, and polls find that 56 percent of Americans say more should be done to promote integration, while only 8 percent of black parents and 17 percent of whites say less should be done. Moreover, policymakers have learned the importance of relying on public school choice, rather than coerced busing, as a way of bringing about greater integration. Creative plans give parents a reason to buy in to integrated schools, by offering a small school size that is attractive to parents of a shy child, for example, or an emphasis on the arts for a budding actor. Likewise, the focus on economic over racial integration emphasizes what Wake County attorney Ann Majestic calls “educational engineering” rather than “social engineering.” Because the primary goal is to increase academic achievement, rather than to rectify historic injustices, such plans don’t simply seek greater mixing by race, they attempt to give all schools a middle-class majority.

To grapple further with some of the political challenges to economic and racial school integration, the Century Foundation is sponsoring a Task Force on the Common School, chaired by former Connecticut Gov. and U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. The 25-member group will examine the creative ways in which some communities have sought to break down barriers of separation between low-income and middle-class children.

Integrating schools is harder than integrating money, but the payoff is much greater. If the country is to make good on its promise of equal educational opportunity, and to seek One America, we should strive for nothing less.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice, published this month by the Brookings Institution Press. He is also the executive director of the Century Foundation Task Force on the Common School.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as An Unambitious Legacy


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