collaboration with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s How
Housing Matters Initiative, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity will
be running a series of commentaries for the next two months exploring the
relationship between housing and three topics: health, economic opportunity,
and education. Please be sure to read Michael Stegman’s “An Introductory Note” to learn more.
This commentary is the seventh installment in
the series, which is entitled “How Housing
Matters to Families and Communities.”
It is hardly news that the achievement gap
between children from low-income and high-income families within the United
States is large. But disturbing new evidence shows that the gap is growing and is now about twice the
achievement gap between white and black children.
many have suggested ideas for ways that schools can narrow the income
achievement gap, a study I conducted revealed that
programs that affect children’s lives outside school walls may be just as important.
In particular, my study revealed that the placement of affordable housing is
one form of an out-of-school investment that can have a big impact on poor
study, published by The Century Foundation, tracked 850
children whose families were randomly assigned to public housing apartments
dispersed throughout hundreds of neighborhoods in Montgomery County,
1974, Montgomery County has implemented a housing policy that provides
low-income children access to its low-poverty schools. Ranking among the top 20
wealthiest counties in the nation and as the sixteenth largest school district
in the U.S., Montgomery County operates the nation’s largest and oldest
inclusionary zoning policy.
zoning policy requires real estate developers to set aside a proportion of the
homes they build to be rented or sold at below-market prices, and has produced
more than 13,000 affordable homes. As a result, thousands of households
typically earning incomes below the poverty line in Montgomery County have
lived in affluent neighborhoods and sent their children to schools where the
vast majority of students come from middle- or upper-class families.
Why study the placement of housing? The
location of housing not only determines residents’ home neighborhoods, which
can directly influence their children’s performance, but it also influences
which schools their children attend. And just as there is an income achievement
gap among children, there is also a large, persistent academic achievement gap
between low- and high-poverty schools. Likely reasons for this gap extend
beyond simple financial advantages to include the stability that comes from
attracting and retaining a corps of better prepared teachers, administrators,
and students, and from having greater parental stewardship of schools.
High-poverty schools, by contrast, tend to
suffer from a churn in staff, students, and short-lived educational reforms
that result in an inconsistent supply of social and material resources. While
these inequities do not entirely determine a school’s academic performance,
they do influence them.
Through the study, I found that public
housing students in the lowest poverty schools substantially outperformed their
public housing peers in higher poverty schools by the end of elementary school.
The longer students attended low poverty
schools, the better they performed relative to their peers.
After seven years, children living in public
housing who attended Montgomery County’s most affluent half of elementary
schools performed eight points higher in math* and five points higher in
otherwise similar public housing children who attended schools where more than
20 percent of the student body qualified for free or reduced-price meals.
Even more important, these students were
catching up to non-poor students in the district—cutting an initial achievement
gap in half by the end of elementary school.
In addition, the benefits of attending
low-poverty schools exceeded attending higher-spending but higher-poverty
schools. Since 2001, the County has invested approximately $2,000 extra dollars
per pupil in its neediest elementary schools to reduce class sizes in the early
grades, provide considerable additional professional development to teachers in
those schools, and to devote longer blocks of time to math and literacy
Despite these investments, children living in
public housing enrolled in low-poverty schools still performed better over time
than public housing children in these extra resource schools.
The results from Montgomery County
demonstrate that an integrative housing policy can be an effective form of
school policy for disadvantaged children. To build on these findings, I am also
currently completing an 11-city study funded by the MacArthur Foundation that
examines whether other inclusionary zoning programs in other locations provide
low-income households access to low-poverty neighborhoods and low-poverty
schools. I expect to publish these results in June 2012.
Regardless of the study’s result,
inclusionary zoning is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every locality.
Although hundreds of counties and cities have
adopted inclusionary zoning within the US, it is best suited for affluent
housing markets and usually produces only dozens or hundreds of affordable
homes per locality. This supply pales in comparison to the millions in need of
The good news is that economically
integrative housing could be one powerful part of the effort to address the
worryingly large achievement gap between low-income and high-income students.
But more must be done if we are going to get serious about substantially
narrowing the economic achievement gap.
a PDF version of this piece, click here.
Schwartz is a full policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.
*0.4 of a standard deviation, p <0.05
†0.2 of a standard deviation, p <0.20