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Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

One of the biggest flaws of the school integration crowd (most-notably, Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation) is that they see the low quality of education for our poor and minority children as a symptom of poverty and segregation (voluntary and otherwise), not as a consequence of the systemic problems within American public education. From where they sit, the idea of improving the quality of schools in the neighborhoods where the children live (including long-term reforms in teacher quality, structural overhauls, and expansion of charter schools and vouchers) is dismissed almost out of hand. They essentially argue that these communities should be left behind and that the poor do not deserve equality of opportunity for high-quality schools. They are also buying into a myth that kids can’t learn if they are mired in a so-called “culture of poverty.”

The latest example of this myopic vision comes courtesy of the latest report coming out of Century, Housing Policy is School Policy. If one only listened to Kahlenberg’s talking points and read the Washington Post story, one would think that the report shows clear evidence that the latest integrationist solutionthe use of public housing policies such as those implemented in Montgomery County, Md., the test case in the report — is better-suited than other reform formulas (it also dovetails nicely with that other approach embraced by Kahlenberg and company — magnet schools and a limited form of public school choice).

But a closer read of the report, written by Rand Corp. researcher Heather Schwartz offers a much-different argument. If anything, it seems that the line of thinking dismisses the actual (strong) research that shows the need for systemic reform. Schwartz’s data shows clearly that poor kids attending Montgomery’s best-performing schools are more-likely than to succeed academically than poor kids relegated to the district’s worst-performing (and poorly-managed) schools. The problem, however, isn’t so much the data or methodology, but the lens through which Schwartz and her colleagues see it. Immediately as one reads through the report, Schwartz has clearly stalked a position that it if poor kids are moved out of cultures of poverty into middle-class settings where there are “decreasing stress levels…[and] increased access to  positive role models.” But as the report itself bares out, simply placing poor kids into classrooms with their middle-class schoolmates isn’t all that effective. Admits Schwartz: “the acadenic returns from economic integration diminish as school poverty levels rose.”

The reason for this is pretty simple. Schwartz (and Kahlenberg) make the mistake of arguing that correlation — that is, the tendency of schools in poor communities to be low-quality — is causation.  One can see this is so just by looking at the strong academic results of schools serving mostly-poor communities and children run by charter school operators such as the Knowledge is Power Program and the Harlem Children’s Zone, Roman Catholic diocesan schools (including those in Montgomery County), and high-performing urban schools. So why are the KIPPs of the world succeeding with poor students (and in these poor communities) — and why are districts such as Montgomery County failing (except when they move kids into their better schools)? Because the former are doing the basics: Ensuring that kids are taught by high-quality teachers with strong subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial drive and care for every child in their class; strong school leadership from talented, savvy principals and system leaders; a culture of genius in which all children are considered capable of learning even the most-difficult of subjects; strong parental engagement in school decision-making; and a rigorous college preparatory curricula.

Traditional school districts struggle to deliver high-quality curricula to even its middle-class students — and do even worse for  poor and minority students. One reason: Seniority assignment and other work rules that allow for more-senior teachers to move into what they consider to be better assignments (usually in magnets and schools serving middle-class families); so schools serving poor students suffer higher levels of turnover (a problem that would be abated if a better job was done in recruiting and training teachers), and end up warehousing laggard veterans as part of the “dance of the lemons” that occurs in districts every year. As Robert Manwaring of the Education Sector has also pointed out, those very seniority rules also means that schools serving poor kids suffer adversely when districts lay off more-energetic, less-senior teachers as part of “last hired-first fired” policies.  (Oddly enough, Schwartz concedes some of this on page 10 of the report. But she moves on to justifying her hypothesis.)

The fact that poor parents are treated as afterthoughts and nuisances by principals and teachers almost guarantees low levels of parental engagement, further fueling low academic achievement. The lack of high-quality school options in poor neighborhoods is also a factor; restrictions on the expansion of charter schools, the lack of vouchers, and the lack of intra- and inter-district choice (thanks to the practice of zoning kids into neighborhoods) means that poor families (who cannot buy their ways into better neighborhoods) are stuck with dropout factories and academic failure mills.

What integration advocates should be doing is addressing the systemic failures within education and embracing an array of approaches — including, yes, magnet schools, along with charters and better school data systems — that expand educational options for poor families and improve teacher quality, curricula and other aspects of education. Instead, they continue to embrace a philosophy that only serves to mire our poorest children in academic failure.

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