IMPROVING OUR SCHOOLS….Bob Somerby reminds me today to comment on Emily Bazelon’s article about school integration in this week’s New York Times Magazine. It’s basically a review of many decades of research showing that the most important way to improve school performance is to eliminate high concentrations of poverty: other things equal, it turns out that academic achievement for all races shows dramatic gains when the proportion of low-income students in a school falls below 50% or, even better, 40%. This finding, says UCLA education professor Gary Orfield, is “one of the most consistent findings in research on education.”

Fine. And much of Bazelon’s article is about the efforts of school districts around the country to use various forms of race and class-based integration to keep their schools below the magic 40% barrier. But then, we get the kicker:

Many big cities have a different problem. Simple demographics dictate that they can’t really integrate their schools at all, by either race or class. Consider the numbers for Detroit (74 percent low-income students; 91 percent black), Los Angeles (77 percent low-income; 85 percent black and Hispanic), New York City (74 percent; 63 percent), Washington (64 percent; 93 percent), Philadelphia (71 percent; 79 percent), Chicago (74 percent; 88 percent) and Boston (71 percent; 76 percent). In theory, big cities can diversify their schools by class and race by persuading many more middle-class and white parents to choose public school over private school or by combining forces with the well-heeled suburbs that surround them. But short of those developments, big cities are stuck.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about the efforts of school districts (most famously, Wake County, NC) to integrate their schools and improve performance. But the elephant in the room is that by far the biggest problem with poverty-stricken schools is in big cities, and in big cities there’s simply no way to do this. No amount of busing, magnet schools, charter schools, carrots, sticks, or anything else will reduce the number of low-income students in each school below 40% when the entire school district is 80% low-income.

And yet, we get endless stories about Wake County (I’ve read at least three or four just in the past couple of years) with virtually no acknowledgment that even if class-based integration works, it’s a small-scale solution. Bazelon, to her credit, does mention it, but then immediately drops it to return to the integration story.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just too depressing to write about. If the effect of concentrated poverty really is “one of the most consistent findings in research on education,” and if there’s no plausible way to reduce concentrated poverty in our biggest school districts, then we’re stuck. We can play around the edges and make small gains here and there, but in the long run nothing will change. And who wants to write a story like that?

UPDATE: Over at Taking Note, Richard Kahlenberg thinks I’m being too pesimistic:

Urban school district lines are not divinely inspired. They are created by states….And even where school district lines are hard to change, boundaries are not impermeable. An estimated 500,000 students cross school district lines every day to go to school in another district.

….One of the longest standing and most successful urban-suburban transfer programs is in St. Louis, where over the years fully a quarter of the student population has had access to good suburban public schools….Two-way transfer programs can also be highly successful. Hartford, Connecticut’s urban-suburban public school choice program prides itself on allowing children to move in both directions. Not only do urban students have a chance to attend high quality suburban schools, there are long waiting lists for white middle class kids to attend urban magnet schools, such Hartford Montessori school.

Point taken. Integration in big cities is a lot harder than in smaller school districts, but it’s not impossible to make progress.

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