Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Housing Policy is School Policy

Schwarz, Heather. Housing Policy is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Economic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland.  The Century Foundation, 2010.

Schwarz’s paper looks at the longitudinal effects of socioeconomic integration of elementary schools in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Montgomery County is one of the top twenty richest counties in the nation, located just outside of Washington D.C.  Less than five percent of County residents are poor and less than a third of students qualify for free or reduced (lower than the national average of nearly 43 percent).  However, a majority of students are members of minority groups.  Montgomery County has done much to attempt to integrate schools across racial and economic lines and is highly successful as measured by County graduation rates, graduating nine out of every ten students.  The County operates “by far the largest inclusionary housing program” in the nation.  This program requires developers to reserve a particular percentage of housing units for low-income families.  Although similar programs have been developed in other states, the inclusionary housing program in Montgomery County offers a third of its units for purchase by the public housing authority.  These units are provided as federally subsidized public housing units to families falling below the poverty line.  Families are randomly assigned to public housing units, which strengthens the study, as these families are not able to self-select into neighborhoods with strong public school options.

Specifically, Schwartz looks at 850 students over a period of seven years, all of whom live in public housing.  She finds that students who attended schools with very low poverty (schools with 0-20 percent free or reduced price lunch) performed significantly better than students who attended schools with high levels of poverty.
Studies, which began in earnest after the 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Hills vs. Gatutreaux, (resulting in the movement of some families in public housing in Chicago to new, low-poverty neighborhoods) demonstrate that children make substantial academic gains, but only after a period of up to seven years.  In Montgomery County, Schwartz also found that academic gains for low-income students who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods did not increase immediately, but did so over time.

As with racial integration (which closely mirrors economic integration), Schwarz admits that it is possible that children from backgrounds of poverty that are integrated into low-poverty settings could experience isolation and the hardening of stereotypes that lead to a decrease in academic performance.  Because there has been so little substantive housing integration in other parts of the country, this is a topic that has been subject to very little academic research.  In Montgomery County, however, Schwarz was clearly able to show that children benefited from such changes and there was a clear correlation that as poverty levels within in a school rose, academic gains for students decreased.

Important Quotations:

“The most common hypotheses about the positive impacts that low-poverty neighborhoods have on children include decreasing stress levels through less expo- sure to crime, gang activity, housing mobility, unemployment, weakened family structure, and through better access to services and resources such as libraries and health clinics; increasing academic expectations and performance through increased access to positive role models and high-performing peers, skilled employment opportunities close to home for their parents, quality day care and out-of-school resources, and prevailing norms of attending and staying in school; and promoting the adoption of pro-social attitudes and behaviors, with less exposure to peers and adults engaged in violent behavior, drug use, or other antisocial activities.”

“Put another way, changing the poverty level among the student body could affect school practice through five primary mechanisms: teacher quality, since teachers are sensitive to the student composition of the school and are more likely to transfer or exit when placed in poor schools; school environment, because high-poverty schools experience greater churn in staffing and students as well as higher levels of confrontation; increased parent involvement, where middle-class parents tend to establish a norm of parental oversight by customizing their children’s school experiences; teacher-student interactions, since teachers calibrate their pedagogical practice to the perceived levels of student skills and preparedness; and peer interactions, since peers form the reference group against which children compare themselves, and by which they model behavior and norms.”

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