Is Economic Integration the Key to Education Reform?

A study conducted by a PhD student at Columbia University reveals that economic integration in Montgomery County’s public school system resulted in higher test scores for low-income students.  Released today, the study followed the performance of 858 elementary students in public housing from 2001-2007.  Half of the students were enrolled in schools where less than 20 percent of students qualified for subsidized meals, while the remainder were placed in schools where up to 60 percent of the students were considered low-income.  An article from The Washington Post reports the study’s findings:

After seven years, the children in the lower-poverty schools performed 8 percentage points higher on standardized math tests than their peers attending the higher-poverty schools – even though the county had targeted them with extra resources. Students in these schools scored modestly higher on reading tests, but those results were not statistically significant.

“The conventional wisdom – and I don’t want to knock the foundation of it – is that we really need to infuse the poorest schools with lots of resources,” said Stefanie DeLuca, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, who has studied the issue and read an advance copy of the report. “This study turns that wisdom on its head to some extent. It says, actually, it’s who you are going to school with.”

Independent researchers call the report a step forward in studying the benefits of economic integration, which has been difficult to measure because it is hard to find large numbers of poor kids in wealthy areas. But Montgomery provided an ideal laboratory because of a long-standing policy of requiring developers to set aside housing for low-income families, who win spots through a lottery.

That randomness strengthens the study, researchers say. It mitigates a problem that hampered previous studies in which parents actively chose to place their children in better schools, making it difficult to separate the effect of the schools from the effect of having motivated parents.

Researchers see the results as especially significant because Montgomery, one of the nation’s best and largest public school districts with 144,000 students, has been uncommonly aggressive in seeking to improve the performance of students in schools with higher poverty.

It has divided the county into a high-performing, more-affluent green zone and a high-needs red zone, where schools receive about $2,000 more in per-pupil funding. And yet, the low-income students in the study performed better in the green-zone schools.

Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said that the report’s findings were no surprise but that his policies are designed to counteract the ill effects of housing patterns that concentrate poverty in certain areas.

“We chose to do the art of the possible,” Weast said. “Housing policy is a far stretch for a school superintendent.”


Researchers say that poor schools often struggle because they tend to attract rotating staffs of less-experienced teachers and administrators, among other problems. Schools with lower levels of poverty have a range of benefits that include more stable staffs, fewer discipline problems and more support from volunteers. Parents who have one job instead of three also have an easier time being involved. And expectations are usually higher.

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