An article of faith among many traditionalists that moving poor children and their families out of downtrodden neighborhoods into more-affluent ones will somehow improve their achievement. This version of socioeconomic integration is similar to that touted by ivory-tower types such as Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, and both are part of the Poverty Myth of Education, or as Boston College’s Curt Dudley-Marling calls it, the deficit model. This view assumes that there is no point to providing high quality education to our poorest children in the neighborhoods in which they live, fuels the idea that housing choice should be the way by which people should select schools (instead of robust school choice that allows any child to attend any school that fits them), and conflates the problems of neighborhoods with the systemic problems of American public education (which also plague affluent communities). More importantly, as studies such as one by Ingrid Gould Ellen of New York University and Keren Mertens Horn of University of Massachusetts Boston on the impact of federal housing vouchers have demonstrated, housing choice-as-school reform doesn’t work out in the real world.
So it isn’t shocking that the latest study on the educational impact of a randomized experiment in housing-as-school-reform (and social improvement), the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity program, shows that it did little to improve student achievement. The latest data should force traditionalists to focus on ending Zip Code Education policies that restrict the ability of families to choose high-quality schools, expanding school choice by bringing high-quality schools into the poorest neighborhoods, and embracing Parent Trigger laws that allow families to transform failing schools in their own communities.
The report, the latest in a series of studies on the program conducted by a star-studded research team that features Lawrence Katz of Harvard University and Ronald Kessler of the college’s medical school, focused on the academic, health, and social progress of 5,101 children of the families in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City who participated in MTO and moved from poor neighborhoods to communities that were, in theory, more-affluent. This included kids whose families received housing vouchers that required them to live in neighborhoods were fewer than 10 percent of the population lived below the poverty line; Section 8 recipients who could live anywhere they choose; and a control group that neither received vouchers nor Section 8 funding. Besides using self-reporting surveys of generally low quality, and statistical data on the demographic populations of the schools the kids previously attended (and those of the schools they enrolled in after moving), they also used more-objective data, including having the children take a 45-minute exam that was similar to the assessment used by the U.S. Department of Education for one of its longitudinal sampling efforts.
Certainly MTO did lead to families moving to neighborhoods that, in the views of both parents and children receiving vouchers and Section 8, were “safer” than the ones from which they moved. But that, along with some self-reported improvements in mental health, was the only noticeable benefit. Reading scores for the kids were only six-tenths of one percent higher than for the average eighth-grader from poor households not receiving any assistance. Children who received vouchers and Section 8 did little better than those kids in the control group; 13-to-20 year olds whose families participated in Section 8, for example, saw their reading scores increase by just sixth-hundredths of a standard deviation, little better than the four-hundredths of a standard deviation increase for the control group, while young adults whose families used housing vouchers only scored three-thousands of a standard deviation higher than peers in the control group. For those kids who were just entering school when they entered MTO, the results were especially disappointing. Average reading scores for those kids whose families were on vouchers increased by only fifty-five hundredth of a standard deviation, little better than the twenty-sixth hundredth of a standard deviation for peers in the control group; kids whose families were engaged in Section 8 scored at one-tenth of a standard deviation, little better than the seventy-eight hundredth of a standard deviation for the control group.
Meanwhile the college-and-career prospects of the kids in MTO weren’t better. Just 20 percent of the 15-to-20 year-olds in MTO had attended college since 2007, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse; just half of the 15-to-20 year-olds were employed according to state and federal employment records. Young men in MTO were 10 percent to 15 percent more-likely to be unemployed and not in higher ed than their female peers. Declared the researchers: “MTO’s effects on achievement and related schooling outcomes were disappointing, particularly among the youngest cohort of children, whom we hypothesized would benefit the most.” These results are certainly disappointing compared to other approaches to school choice and systemic reform such as charter schools, which, as the Rand Corp. determined in its 2009 study that shows that children attending charters in Chicago and Florida are 7–15 percent more likely to attend college than those attending traditional public schools, or as seen in the Center for Research on Education Outcomes’ recent research on charters in New Jersey and Indiana. Or even the results of school voucher programs such as that in Milwaukee, which has proven to improve student achievement for the poorest kids over time.
[By the way: This isn't to say that housing vouchers are not good for helping families escape violent neighborhoods unfit for kids. In fact, through for that reason, as well as to improve the mental health outcomes of families, housing vouchers are as important to improving those odds as school vouchers are to helping poor kids get high-quality education. Although, as in school reform, it is also important to empower communities to rebuild their neighborhoods and address the proverbial broken windows that lead to crime festering in the first place.]
As I made clear last month in a Dropout Nation Podcast on ending Zip Code Education policies, none of this should be shocking. As with the kids who participated in HUD’s larger housing-as-school reform effort, the vouchers and Section 8 subsidies were often not large enough to help them afford housing in neighborhoods zoned to top-performing traditional district schools. AS HUD noted in one report, poverty levels for voucher and Section 8 recipients were, respectively, a mere seven and nine percentage points lower than the 40 percent poverty rate for families in the control group. As a result, most families on vouchers and Section 8 found themselves in communities where the traditional district schools were little better than those their kids originally attended.
Another factor lies in the fact that in the 1990s when MTO started, as now, there is little information available to families to make smart school decisions. to go on when it comes to picking a top-performing school. State school data systems often provide data in less-than-easy-to-understand ways, or in ways that may matter particularly to poor and minority households. For example, a top-performing school that does well with students overall may not necessarily do well in improving student achievement for young black men. Districts also don’t make it easy for families to learn whether an area in which they are moving is zoned to a school with a culture of genius or a failure mills. It is often hard to even be able to tour a school just to see what is going on if your child isn’t already attending. So if middle-class households struggle in finding data on communities served by high-quality schools, then poor families will struggle even more mightily.
Meanwhile the MTO study points to this reality: That for poor and minority families, simply moving from one school to another within a failing district rarely makes a difference. This is because the failures of the district itself are the underlying cause of the failures of the schools it manages. As seen with most school turnaround efforts, the same culture of incompetence at the school is usually mirrored by central office bureaucrats above them. Unless families have the ability to choose high-quality alternatives to shoddy traditional district schools, moving from one neighborhood to another (or, as shown by Karyn Lacy in Blue-Chip Black, relocating from cities stuck with the monopoly of failing districts to suburbs stuck with mediocre traditional district monopolies of their own), doesn’t work, either as choice or as systemic reform.
Even if the MTO vouchers and Section 8 subsidies covered the full rental costs and data was easily available, there’s the reality that poor families, like middle-class counterparts, have strong ties to the communities in which they have long lived, and even to the failure mills in their neighborhoods. Who can blame them? Both the poorest families and those households who aren’t on any government support want and deserve high-quality school choices within their own neighborhoods. For the latter, they have invested heavily in their communities through their taxes to schools and in their own sweat equity, and want the best for their own children too. And considering that high-quality education is the key solution to stemming poverty and revitalizing neighborhoods – especially those hurt by the presence of failing schools in their midst – we can’t simply engage in policies and actions that leave these communities behind.
The results of the latest MTO study show is something that should be as clear as day to all of us: That we have to end Zip Code Education policies that restrict families from accessing high-quality education – especially in their own neighborhoods. This means expanding charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, and other forms of school choice; passing Parent Trigger and other Parent Power laws; ending zoned school policies that often restrict families from accessing high-quality schools in their cities or in surrounding areas; developing online and blended learning options that allow for families and communities to launch their own schools; and improving school data systems so that all families can make smart decisions.
While the school reform movement has made strides in expanding choice and Parent Power, this is still not a reality for many families — especially those from the poorest households who want better for their kids. Just seven states, including Indiana and Florida, scored 75 percent or higher on the Center for Education Reform’s recently-published Parent Power Index. Only a smattering of states have Parent Trigger laws on their books that allow for families to take control of the failing schools in their own communities — and redefine choice as being both about creating high-quality schools right within neighborhoods and fleeing failing schools.
If we are to continue bending the arc of history toward economic and social progress, especially for our poorest families, we have to do more than just hand them housing vouchers and Section 8 subsidies. We must overhaul American public education. And that includes expanding the array of high-quality school options all of our children deserve.