The Dream Revisited

Why Economic School Segregation Matters

by Richard D. Kahlenberg | March 2014

Charles Clotfelter has long been an astute observer of the problems associated with racial segregation in education, and now, he properly turns himself to the next frontier: “economic school segregation.”

Concerns about economic segregation across schools have gained salience in recent years for three reasons. 

First, economic segregation across schools is rising, even as racial segregation (at least at the residential level) is seeing a modest decline. 
Second, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle placed new limits on the ability of school districts to voluntarily employ race in student assignment but left the door wide open to integration interventions that consider socioeconomic status. 
Third, schools are under increasing pressure from the federal government to boost academic achievement of students, and research has long shown that to raise cognitive skills, it is even more important to avoid concentrations of poverty than concentrations of minority students per se.  The Congressionally-authorized Coleman Report, for example, found back in 1966 that the “beneficial effect of a student body with a high proportion of white students comes not from racial composition per se but from the better educational background and higher educational aspirations that are, on the average, found among whites.” More recent research confirms these findings. (Of course, there are powerful reasons to want to integrate schools by race having nothing to do with test scores.  In a pluralistic democracy, it is important to promote tolerance and reduce racial bias and to prepare students to thrive in a multiracial workforce.)

For all these reasons, districts are increasingly focusing their integration efforts on socioeconomic status.  The number of districts pursuing socioeconomic integration policies has increased from one in the early 1990s (La Crosse, Wisconsin) to more than 80 today -- from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Wake County, North Carolina.  These 80 districts educate more than 4 million students.

Why does socioeconomic school segregation matter?  Clotfelter notes that school poverty concentrations are deeply troubling, in part because “economic segregation almost inevitably means unequal access to the best teachers and other resources.”  Teachers in middle-class schools are far more likely to be experienced and to have greater skills as measured by teacher test scores.  They are most likely to be specifically trained to teach in their subject area, whereas teachers in high-poverty schools are more likely to teach “out of field” (that is, an educator trained in physical education ends up teaching physics instead.)

But in addition to teachers, two other sets of school players –- students and parents -- help explain why economic segregation is detrimental.  There is substantial evidence involving “peer effects” to suggest that having middle-class and high-achieving classmates has a positive effect on student achievement.   And being in schools with an actively involved group of parent volunteers is an advantage.  In part because middle-class families are more likely to have flexible schedules and time to be involved in school affairs, they are four times as likely to be members of the PTA and twice as likely to volunteer in class as low-income parents, according to federal data from the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Study and from the National Center for Education Statistics, respectively.

All of this has a profound effect on student achievement.  Middle-class schools are twenty-two times as likely to be high performing as high poverty schools, according to research by Douglas Harris of Tulane University.  Likewise, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that low-income fourth graders who have a chance to attend more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income fourth graders in high poverty schools in mathematics. 

And, carefully controlling for self-selection effects, a 2010 Century Foundation study conducted by Heather Schwartz of the RAND Corporation found that elementary students in Montgomery County, Maryland whose families were randomly assigned to public housing units throughout the county did far better in mathematics when they lived in lower poverty neighborhoods and attended lower poverty schools – even though the higher poverty schools spent more per pupil.  The National Coalition for School Diversity  has a series of reports that nicely summarizes the substantial body of evidence on the benefits of socioeconomic and racial integration.

As Clotfelter notes, two large school districts in North Carolina have charted very different paths on diversity, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg allowed schools to resegregate by economic status and race and Wake County (Raleigh) sought to preserve economic school integration.  Charlotte’s nationally-recognized pre-K program appears to have helped the district maintain strong academic achievement, though Wake County has achieved comparable results at substantially lower expense.  These examples raise the profound question: what might be possible if we combined Charlotte’s commitment to pre-K with Wake’s commitment to socioeconomic integration?

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

More in Discussion 2: Economic Segregation in Schools