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Schools Can’t Do It Alone: Why “Doubly Disadvantaged” Kids Continue to Struggle Academically

A report on childhood poverty proves once again that no single measure can cure poverty’s ills.

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Q: In what international comparison does the U.S. rank lower than its educational test scores rankings?

A: Childhood poverty.

“Today, 22 percent of our children live in poverty. The U.S has the second worst infant mortality rate among industrialized nations,” details America’s Report Card 2012, a report supported by First Focusand Save the Children to highlight the condition of children in the U.S.

Research has shown for decades that education, health and safety outcomes for children in homes struggling with poverty remain some of the greatest challenges facing this country. As America’s Report Card 2012 explains:

“We are falling behind because we are ignoring these problems. England has reduced child poverty through policies enacted with the goal to eliminate child poverty by 2020, while America has seen rising poverty levels and no national push to reverse that trend. But we can do better.”

Less often acknowledged is the fact that impoverished children are likely to be “doubly disadvantaged” – both by consequences of living in high-poverty homes and high-poverty communities. One response to the disadvantages of high-poverty communities included the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) implementing the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing program in the mid-1990s:

“MTO recruited more than 4,600 families with children living in severely distressed public housing projects in five cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City). HUD offered some MTO families the opportunity to use a housing voucher to move into private-market housing in lower poverty neighborhoods and did not make the same offer to others.”

Data from the two comparison groups have provided a basis for long-term analysis of whether addressing community characteristics could improve the outcomes of high-poverty children in education, health and safety.

That research on MTO, “The Long-Term Effects of Moving to Opportunity on Youth Outcomes” (2012), details that despite efforts to address community-based disadvantages connected with poverty, long-term data show:

“Overall, MTO had few detectable effects on a range of schooling outcomes, even among those children who were of preschool age at study entry, and few detectable effects on physical health outcomes. In other outcome domains, the long-term survey found that MTO had patterns of effects that were similar to, but more muted than, those the interim follow up survey found, with favorable patterns among female youth—particularly on mental health outcomes—and less favorable patterns among male youth.”

This report is a sobering, although incomplete, message for confronting the negative consequences of poverty and inequity in the homes, communities and schools of American children.

The Doubly Disadvantaged Children in Poverty

Despite the apparent ineffectiveness of the program, MTO represents a bold policy commitment to confronting poverty and inequity in the lives of children:

“These patterns [school dropout, low test scores, and delinquency] have led to a longstanding concern that neighborhood environments may exert an independent causal effect on the life chances of young people. Because low-income individuals comprise nearly one-half of the 8.7 million people living in census tracts with poverty levels of 40 percent or higher (Kneebone, Nadeau, and Berube, 2011), poor children growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty may be ‘doubly disadvantaged’—they face potential risks from growing up in a low-income household and in an economically poor neighborhood.”

While the report and program address many aspects of MTO’s impact on children’s lives, the data concerning education may hold the most important cautions for the current education reform movement, particularly as MTO data impact debates about in-school reform versus wrap-around models for education reform.

Wrap-around education reform, as exemplified by programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone, has received uncritical praise in the media, as well as from President Obama and Michelle Obama. Advocates of wrap-around models for education reform believe that, alongside in-school reform measures, the conditions of a child’s home and the parents themselves require support in order for better educational outcomes to be achieved.

Yet some have rejected wrap-around models, endorsing school-only reform, because, as Michelle Croft and Grover J. Whitehurst of the Brookings Instituteargue, “[t]here is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs, and community improvement in general have appreciable effects on student achievement in schools in the U.S.”

MTO represents a less well publicized effort to help children overcome not just home disadvantages but also community inequity.

In most reform efforts, the policy focus remains on the schools themselves as a mechanism to overcome poverty indirectly. While the debates about how to reform education and how to address poverty remain contentious, the evidence is growing that poverty and inequity are reflected in and perpetuated by community-based public schools, suggesting that school-only reform is inadequate.

Decades of data—for example, results from the SAT—have detailed a strong correlation between family income/parental education and student test scores. More recently, the evidence also reveals that schools and students are strongly impacted by the communities within which they sit.

One analysis, “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City” shows that New York communities are segregated by economic status, and in return, the children in high-poverty neighborhoods attend schools that serve concentrated inequity and struggle with low test scores. High-poverty neighborhoods surround high-poverty schools, and evidence suggests those schools reflect the inequity of the neighborhood, but fail to overcome it.

As Pedro Noguera explains in the report’s preface:

“Unfortunately, this same pattern of disparity is found in students’ access to good schools and to all of the opportunities that accompany this access. As this report from the Schott Foundation reveals, more often than not, the opportunity to learn and to attend a high performing school is largely determined by the neighborhood in which a child lives.”

A similar national study, “Housing Costs, Zoning and Access to High-Scoring Schools,” confirms that inequity in the home and community determines students’ access to high-quality opportunities in their schools:

“With these challenges in mind, policy leaders have taken a number of steps over the past few decades to expand access to high-quality education for disadvantaged groups….While all of these efforts deserve careful consideration, none directly addresses one of the central issues that limit educational opportunity for low-income and minority children: their disproportionate concentration in low-performing schools.”

MTO, too, failed to produce the outcomes expected on this front: for example, the program’s attempt to move children out of high-poverty neighborhoods did not guarantee they would attend higher quality schools. In fact, as the report lays out, the schools attended by the children whose families received vouchers were “still usually in the bottom one-fourth of the statewide performance distribution” – giving proof to the deep complexity of what is required to effectively address the multiple disadvantages of children living and learning in poverty.

Moreover, these “doubly disadvantaged” children are likely to find inequity of opportunity continues beyond K-12 schooling as well.

At City Limits, Norm Fruchter, reporting on college readiness and neighborhood demographics, explains that college access parallels access to high-quality schools for children in impoverished neighborhoods:

“…After a decade of reform efforts, ZIP code and income are still the major factors predicting college success for New York City’s high school graduates. Is Demography Still Destiny?, a study recently conducted by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR), found that the college readiness rates of the city’s high school graduates were strongly and negatively correlated with the percentage of black and Latino residents in the city’s neighborhoods.”

In the context of the research linking home, community, and educational inequity in the U.S., the disappointing findings about the impact of MTO highlight the inevitable failure of attempting to overcome poverty indirectly– by adopting in-school reforms including Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Teach for America (TFA), Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, and value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation – rather than confronting poverty directly, through social programs that impact food security, job security and healthcare.

The MLK Imperative: Addressing Poverty Directly

In a 2010 speech celebrating a new era in high-stakes testing based on CCSS, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invoked “the American promise of education as the great equalizer.”

Duncan’s rhetoric reflects the current education reform focus on school-based education practices as levers to eradicate social inequity and poverty.

The research findings related to education from the long-term implementation of MTO suggests once again that indirect methods of overcoming poverty—school-based reforms focusing on standards, tests, and teacher quality—are misguided, regardless of political promises.

Recently, drawing on her work at FairTest, Lisa Guisbond challenged school-based education reform and its connection with equity and opportunity goals:

“If Rev. King were with us, he would surely see that schools in poor communities remain both severely segregated and underfunded. This affects class size, access to science labs, books, art and music. It also affects teachers and principals, many of whom quickly burn out and leave a challenging school or the profession itself.”

While the evidence is overwhelming that education inequity in American schools must be addressed, Guisbond adds: “Facing test-driven accountability, many schools have narrowed curriculum by reducing or dropping untested subjects such as social studies, science, art, music and gym.…As with other failures of educational opportunity, the impact has been greatest in schools that serve low-income youth, particularly students of color.”

Just as the data from the MTO experiment show no clear positive outcomes for academic achievement by high-poverty students, three decades of school-based high-stakes accountability have not raised test scores and may have lowered graduation rates. Accountability policies have also not closed the achievement gap.

School-based education reform has had ample time in multiple versions to impact positively the greatest problems facing public education: Inequity of opportunity in the lives of children reflected in and perpetuated by their community-based schools. But these reforms have failed repeatedly.

One alternative approach has been ignored, however. In 1967, Dr. King offered animperative, “Final Words of Advice,” that could serve education reform well in terms of shifting commitments away from school-based policies and toward social reform:

“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs [addressing poverty] of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income….

“We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

While many commitments to education reform—CCSS, TFA, KIPP, and VAM—are entirely school-based and indirect attempts to fulfill Duncan’s claim of “education as the great equalizer,” ambitious efforts such as MTO and the Harlem Children’s Zone also remain indirect solutions for poverty that depend on the schools as mechanisms for social reform. As long as reform remains indirect, thus focused on the schools, wrap-around methods and ambitious programs such as MTO are likely to be ineffective in terms of academic improvement or closing the achievement gap.

Inequity in schools must be addressed through reform, but food insecurity, healthcare and job security policies must also be implemented as direct action against poverty that will then provide the context within which education reform can succeed – as Dr. King declared nearly five decades ago.

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