Cows: sacred. Oxes: gored

The Harvard economist Roland Fryer did a recent study on the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).  The NYT’s usually reliable David Brooks sort of botched it.  That’s a shame, as it is worth an unfiltered read.  To whet your appetite for original (in every sense) research, here are two cows Fryer comfortably gores.

To begin, it is a trusim that low-income children do better in schools with more high-income kids.  Most people have always assumed that this difference is largely explained by income (peer group).  Fryer points out that might not be the case:

This suggests that a better community, as measured by poverty rate, does not significantly raise test scores if school quality remains essentially unchanged.  Additionally, and more speculative, there is substantial anecdotal evidence that the Children’s Zone program was unsuccessful in the years before opening the charter schools. Indeed, the impetus behind starting the schools was the lack of test-score growth under the community-only model. (p. 22)

That first sentence is pretty radical.  The usual assumption is that wooing the middle class back to urban districts will cure many school ills – now it seems that many parents who chose to leave poorly-performing schools in search of something better may have had an innate sense that in isolation, if you put (leave?) wealthier students in bad schools, all you get is a bad school with more affluent students.

The Broader, Bolder crowd has long argued that the best way to improve education is to reduce poverty.  Fryer’s paper suggests that this may not be true (and may even be backwards): without better schools, increases in income may not produce different educational outcomes. And as plenty of other studies have shown, education helps reduce poverty (among other virtues: see the education premium).

Is one of the keys to improving urban education bringing the affluent middle-class back to the public schools?  Perhaps, but that alone might not do it, and it seems more and more a solution that puts the cart well before the horse.  One could argue that an influx of higher income kids will set off a chain of related events (better teachers, more parental engagement) that improve schools, but given the difficulty in wooing these families back, why is it that we cannot initiate the chain of school improvement even if income levels stay the same?  Better schools will attract more kids — and isn’t the creation of better schools (not just better student bodies) what we should be doing anyway?

Also pointed is the discussion of the increase in academic achievement in the HCZ low-income population:

We conclude by presenting three pieces of evidence that high-quality schools or high-quality schools coupled with community investments generate the achievement gains. Community investments alone cannot explain the results.

Again, the understated nature of the language belies the point.  The expenditure of resources on services alone may not improve educational outcomes for low-income kids.  Regardless of an increase in services or increased income equality, to get better educational outcomes, you need to have better schools. To go further, to get the full benefit of additional community services that address health and poverty, one needs companion reform of education.

These are not definitive results, and even Fryer is cautious about his findings.  But these are powerful ideas, and well worthy of consideration (and maybe even comments).

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