Equity & Diversity Commentary

Housing Policy Is School Policy

By Richard D. Kahlenberg — October 15, 2010 7 min read

In recent weeks, the nation’s education reform community has been enthralled by Davis Guggenheim’s film “Waiting For ‘Superman,’” which disparages teachers’ unions and celebrates the lotteries used to get into high-poverty charter schools. (“‘Superman’ and Solidarity,” this issue.) The empirically dubious message is that the nonunion character of charter schools will save low-income students, even though only 17 percent of charter schools outperform regular public schools.

New research, however, suggests that what really works is winning a different kind of lottery: the one jurisdictions like Montgomery County, Md., hold to provide a chance for low-income public-housing students to live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and attend superb (and unionized) public schools.

The Maryland district’s schools, in suburban Washington, are nationally acclaimed for promoting both excellence and equity in education. Affluent Montgomery County students perform very well academically, and the district’s low-income and minority students outperform comparable groups in the state, making the system one of five finalists for the prestigious Broad Prize in education this year.


Much credit has appropriately been given to the district’s investment of substantial extra resources in its lowest-income schools, but the county also has a long-standing inclusionary housing policy that allows low-income students to live in middle- and upper-middle-class communities and attend fairly affluent schools.

Thus, Montgomery County offers an interesting experiment: Do low-income students perform better in higher-poverty schools that receive greater resources, or in more-affluent schools with fewer resources? Which matters more for low-income students: extended learning time, lower class size, and intensive teacher-development programs—all made available in Montgomery County’s higher-poverty schools—or the types of advantages usually associated with wealthier schools, such as positive peer role models, active parental communities, and strong teachers?

In a just-released Century Foundation study by Heather Schwartz, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corp., the results are unmistakable: Low-income students attending lower-poverty elementary schools (and living in lower-poverty neighborhoods) significantly outperform low-income elementary students who attend higher-poverty schools with state-of-the-art educational interventions. By the end of elementary school, Schwartz finds, public-housing students in the lowest-poverty schools cut their initial, sizable math-achievement gap with nonpoor students in the district by half. For reading, it was cut by one-third. In math, students in public housing achieved at 0.4 of a standard deviation higher in more-affluent schools than in less-affluent ones, which is substantially larger than the 0.1 effects size often found for educational interventions. The study, “Housing Policy Is School Policy,”did not specifically measure the effect of the inclusionary housing program on the achievement of middle-class students, but Montgomery County’s nonpoor students are among the highest-achieving in the state and the nation.

What is particularly remarkable about the comparative success of public-housing students in Montgomery County’s more-affluent schools is that the school system’s interventions in its less-affluent schools have been generally effective and widely lauded. Under the leadership of Superintendent Jerry Weast, school officials divided county schools into two roughly equal groups—more-affluent “green zone” elementary schools, and less-affluent “red-zone schools”—and then poured an extra $2,000 per student into red-zone schools, much to the chagrin of many wealthy parents. As Stacey Childress, Denis Doyle, and David Thomas write in their 2009 book Leading for Equity, Weast’s strategies helped decrease the achievement gap with whites in 3rd grade reading from 35 percentage points in 2003 to 19 points in 2008 for African-Americans, and from 43 percentage points to 17 for Hispanics. “Improvements of this magnitude in a district of this size in so little time are rare in public education,” they wrote. Schwartz’s research confirms that students in Montgomery County’s red-zone schools had higher performance on state tests than students in demographically similar schools statewide.

But it was Montgomery County’s “inclusionary zoning” policy, long advocated by researchers such as the urban strategist David Rusk, that had a far more pronounced positive educational effect. Under a policy adopted in the early 1970s, developers of large subdivisions are required to set aside between 12 percent and 15 percent of units for low-income and working-class families. The housing authority purchases up to one-third of the inclusionary-zoning homes to operate as public-housing apartments that are scattered throughout the county. Families eligible for public housing enter a lottery and are randomly assigned to public-housing apartments.

Schwartz’s study traces the academic progress of 850 public-housing students in red- and green-zone elementary schools between 2001 and 2007. The average family income of these students was $21,047, and 87 percent of them were from female-headed households. By race, the student population was 72 percent African-American, 16 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, and 6 percent white.

The study has national significance not only because it found a very large longitudinal effect from economic integration, but also because it helps answer a question about whether the superior performance of low-income students in more-affluent schools nationwide is simply an artifact of self-selection. We know that on the 4th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress in math, low-income students in more-affluent schools perform a full two years better than low-income students in high-poverty schools. But researchers wondered: Might the result reflect the high level of motivation among families who scrape to get their children into good schools? Schwartz’s Century Foundation study controls for that factor by comparing students whose families were assigned by lottery to red- and green-zone schools. (And, unlike research based on charter school lotteries, the attrition rate in Montgomery County public housing is extremely low.)

Low-income students attending lower-poverty elementary schools (and living in lower-poverty neighborhoods) significantly outperform low-income students who attend higher-poverty schools with state-of-the-art educational interventions."

On the surface, Schwartz’s study would seem to contradict results from a federal housing-income-integration program known as Moving to Opportunity, which saw few academic gains for children. But that program involved students who moved to schools with an average free- and reduced-price-lunch population of 67.5 percent (compared to a control group attending schools with 73.9 percent of students receiving subsidized lunches), whereas the Montgomery County experiment allowed low-income students to attend some very-low-poverty schools, similar to the wildly successful Gautreaux program in Chicago. Schwartz found the achievement benefits extended to public-housing students attending schools with up to 30 percent low-income student populations.

Does this research suggest that 30 percent is a “tipping point” after which low-income students generally will cease to benefit from economically integrated schooling? Schwartz concludes that it does not. The vast majority of the schools in her sample had low-income populations of between zero and 60 percent. Because other research has found that the negative effects of concentrated poverty are compounded in very-high-poverty schools, it may well be that low-income students in, say, 30 percent to 50 percent low-income schools perform better than those in 60 percent to 100 percent low-income schools. But Montgomery County doesn’t have enough truly high-poverty schools to test the hypothesis.

One interesting question raised by the study is to what extent students benefited from living in more-advantaged neighborhoods, compared with attending more-advantaged schools. Schwartz finds that roughly two-thirds of the benefit comes from the school, and one-third from the neighborhood. This suggests that there may be considerable value in programs that integrate at the school level alone, though greater benefits clearly accrue from integration at both the neighborhood and school levels.

One hopes that the Obama administration will take note of the Montgomery County findings as it moves forward in developing education and housing policies. Roughly 80 school districts nationally are taking steps to integrate schools by socioeconomic status; and more than 100 municipalities employ inclusionary zoning policies. Pursuing these ideas requires heavy political lifting, but on the schools front, the administration has provided minimal support. While the federal Race to the Top Fund rewards states that lift caps on charter schools, not a single point in the grant competition was given for promoting economically integrated schools.

Shouldn’t an administration focused on “what works” spend less time thinking about charter school lotteries and more time considering the kinds of lotteries that let children in public housing live in a middle-class neighborhood, attend superb middle-class schools, and make very large achievement gains?

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Lifting Student Performance


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