Sunday, October 09, 2005

Home Economics

I've been struggling the past couple weeks with recent reports out of Wake County, North Carolina. Struggling, not because of what's going on down there, but because of some unasked and unanswered questions, and moreso because of the clumsy conclusions drawn by smart people who should look deeper. Struggling, also, because in North Carolina, as in Philadelphia and even Mt. Airy, "economics" is often confused with, and sometimes a code word for, race.

So here's what's going on. Wake County's county-wide school district, which includes urban Raleigh and surrounding suburbs, in 2000 set a goal to integrate its 120,000 students, not racially, but economically. Their operational goal: to limit the proportion of low-income students in any school to no more than 40 percent. The district uses family income levels and a legacy busing system to move kids all over the 832 square mile county - some kids take a near-one-hour bus trip to school - to achieve a balance of students from diverse family incomes, with the ultimate goal of raising achievement levels of the low-income students.

Why? The rationale used in Wake County, along with La Crosse, Wisconsin; St. Lucie County, Florida; San Francisco; and Cambridge, Massachusetts, locations also experimenting with economic integration in public schools, is, as one former Wake County school board member put it, "To avoid concentrations of low-achieving students."

Has it worked? According to the New York Times, Wake County reports 80 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level or above, last year, compared with only 40 percent a decade ago. (What are we measuring here: race, or family income?) The Times claims Hispanic students have made similar gains since the experiment began. I can live with those findings. I'm having a harder time with the next two conclusions.

Problem conclusion #1
The "and" statements that follow the praise of the positive effects on students from low-income families:

  • from a former Wake County school board member, as quoted in the Times: "...advantaged students are not hurt by it if you follow policies that avoid concentrating low-achieving students."
  • as penned by Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation: "...low-income students do much better, and middle-class achievement does not suffer."
  • or from the Inquirer's Jane Eisner: "...the standardized test results of those poor kids [thanks to Ross Perot's ghost writing] - most of whom are black or Hispanic - have improved dramatically, and not at the expense of other students."

Not at the expense of other students? OK. If the only benefits of economically integrating schools are that students from low-income families do better in school and have better chances of getting into higher education and careers, that's good. Imagine a Philadelphia where twice as many kids from low-income families do well enough to graduate from high school. Not a bad outcome. That's even something the business community can - or should - get behind with real investment. But is that all you've got?

More complete conclusion #1
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Thomas Hylton, in his 1995 book, Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania, notes a critical advantage of economic integration to students from middle- and upper-income families:

  • reduced stereotyping between economic strata: kids from each income level get to know kids from the others, creating less mystery and more understanding. They get to know that some of "those poor kids" do great in school, that some of "those rich kids" don't.

Our experience at Henry is that our son is developing tremendous social competency. In class and on the playground, he spends 32.5 hours a week with kids spanning most of the economic spectrum. He learns and plays beside kids who may think he's "rich," and beside kids he definitely thinks are "rich." He learns and plays with kids who benefit from the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs. He learns and plays beside kids of color whose families have much more money than his, and beside white kids whose families have less. He knows from his own genuine experience that race does not equal economics, or ability, or aspiration, or intelligence. That experience-based knowledge will serve our son throughout his life, enriching his formal and informal education, his career, his employers' productivity, and his community.

Problem conclusion #2
To believe Jane Eisner, replicating the Wake County success means transplanting urban kids to suburban schools. Although it is true that many Philadelphia neighborhoods are not economically diverse, others are. Additionally, although she fails to mention the strength of some Philadelphia schools, perhaps for the sake of a beyond-Philly readership, Ms. Eisner should know better: we have schools, like Henry, where economic integration is already reality, and where the results are similar to those reported by Wake County.

More complete conclusion #2
Henry's proportion of students from low-income families last year, according to the district website's profile of Henry, was 43.3 percent - very close to the 40 percent target of Wake County. Overall, the school was 86.3 percent African American, 11.1 percent white, and 2.6 percent Asian and Latino. Obviously, the majority of the students of color at Henry are not "those poor kids." Maybe that's part of the reason for Henry's consistently strong performance - a majority of the students come from middle-income families, which tend to have a history of higher educational attainment; greater ability to contribute time, expertise, and money to support the school; and social/professional networks that can effectively advocate for the school. (These attributes are similar to some of the "ten reasons why socioeconomic integration matters," from Kahlenberg, above.)

Concluding conclusion
Now in our fourth year of monthly meetings to recruit neighborhood families into Henry, my wife and I have found many of the advantages noted in the Wake County experience and in Richard Kahlenberg's analysis. Many the families who have entered Henry through the meetings (and who are predominately middle-income) have embraced active roles in the school, whether as an officer of the Home and School Association, member of the School Council, or less formal organizer of classroom and school-wide activities, they are bringing a variety of tangible and intangible resources into the school. Individually and in organized efforts, these families actively advocate for the school and its needs. Most importantly, our kids are doing great in a diverse learning environment.

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