Students Beyond School Buildings: Social and Economic Reforms ARE School Reform

In a 2011 New York Times editorial, Helen Ladd and Edward B. Fiske ask why education policymakers frequently ignore the negative correlation between student characteristics and educational access and outcomes in policy. They posit a simple answer: “Some honestly believe that schools are capable of offsetting the effects of poverty. Others want to avoid the impression that they set lower expectations for some groups of students for fear that those expectations will be self-fulfilling. In both cases, simply wanting something to be true does not make it so” (p. 2). Failing to acknowledge the way that poverty affects education is detrimental to school reform itself and to the students that it serves and impacts — school reform must include social and economic reform.

In recent years, an expansive research base has developed on the connection between education, teachers, student characteristics, and other external factors. Yet, reform remains mainly standards and accountability based. While research investigating the interaction of school access, opportunity, and outcomes with a whole host of out-of-school factors including parenting style, health status, class, and housing demonstrates that social policy informs education policy, the two remain largely separate. Yet, schools do not exist merely in vacuums, nor do the students that come to school each day. Policy must account for these factors that attribute to educational access, opportunity, and achievement, including but not limited to class and socioeconomic status, support systems, and housing policies. If reformers are to truly ‘fix’ schools, improve student outcomes, and revamp education in the 21st century, school reformers must push for social and economic reforms to counter social reproduction, cap gaps, and level the playing field for all students.

Look no further than the interaction of class and socio-economic status (SES) and education to understand why this is necessary. In Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein (2004) states, similarly to Ladd and Fiske, that education reformers know that a link exists between SES and educational access, opportunity, and outcomes, but disregard how “raising the achievement of lower-class children requires amelioration of the social and economic conditions of their lives, not just school reform” (p. 11). This fact is evident when examining the research on No-Excuses schools, various charter schools, High-Flying Schools, and 90/90/90 schools among others. Though some school reformers tout these as great successes for poor students without the use of social reform, the results are, on average, the upshot of non-representative samples and results. Schools simply cannot level the playing field by themselves. Rothstein (2004) believes that if students came to school at the same level — as in if the external factors and resources were the same for all children — the achievement gap would fail to exist (p. 57). Yet, in the current American climate, inequalities persist. Economic and social reforms are needed to produce equal access, opportunities, and outcomes. In these ways, school reform must be economic and social based.

Rothstein (2004) provides a number of disturbing statistics that show just how class status and educational access, opportunity, and outcomes are linked — and why social and economic reforms are necessary in education reform. On average, children who have someone read to them at home have higher lifetime achievement (p. 19). 50% of minority and poor children have vision impairments that tamper with their schoolwork and achievement (p. 37). Students from low-income backgrounds are five times more likely to have high blood lead levels, and are more likely in general to miss school because of asthma-related complications. 20% of poor students lack health insurance on a regular basis, as compared to the 12% of students nationally (pp. 39–41). Many low-income students also lack access to breakfast, regardless of free and reduced price lunch (FRPL) status. In New York City, only 26% of students that receive FRPL receive breakfast (p. 45). According to Rothstein (2004), “reducing the mobility of low-income students (those eligible for lunch subsidies) to that of other students would eliminate 7% of the test score gap by income” (p. 46). In a Cleveland, Ohio, study conducted by Korbin and Coulton (1997), impoverishment, as defined by high poverty and unemployment, housing openings, race, decreases in population, and houses run by women, had a large negative effect on child outcomes. With all of this in mind, it is obvious that policymakers must account for the multiple ways that poverty attributes to education — factors that make it incredibly difficult for poor students to come to school ready and able to learn, much less attend school at all. School reform will never successfully counter the opportunity or achievement gap without social and economic reform to alleviate these effects and others in the lives of the students.

Consider this: if a student cannot see the blackboard, how can he or she be expected to perform at the same level as a student who can? If a student comes to school hungry or does not have a roof over his or her head, how can he or she be expected to be ready and able to learn at the same level as one with a full stomach and adequate housing? If a student receives a myriad of educational resources outside of school, how can a student who does not be expected to have the same academic performance? Students enter school at varying achievement levels. Students enter school buildings with different characteristics and background factors. School reformers cannot ignore these problems, and must concentrate on social and economic reforms in the areas of the income gap, adequate and consistent housing, preschool access, school and neighborhood health and neo-natal clinics, and out of school initiatives — reforms that would alleviate the effects of poverty and social reproduction that negatively interact with educational access, opportunity, and outcomes.

Some reformers have already heeded the call for connected social, economic, and educational reform. Take, for instance, the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which embodies a new Bigger, Bolder policy reform approach. Promise Neighborhoods is a federally-funded holistic program aimed at bettering the lives, opportunities, and outcomes of poor children through an extensive network of private, public, and community partnerships that provide health care and educational access among other social services, including but not limited to college readiness programs, adult education, nutrition classes, early childhood educational access, and the creation of neighborhood hubs. The initiative, started by the Obama-Biden administration, is a direct facsimile of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). Yet, according to Whitehurst and Croft (2010), the effects of the HCZ are debatable. They conclude, “There is no evidence that the HCZ influences student achievement through neighborhood investments. There is considerable evidence that schools have dramatic effects on the academic skills of disadvantaged children without their providing broader social services. Improving neighborhoods and communities is a desirable goal in its own right, but let’s not confuse it with education reform” (p. 9). This conclusion seems unwarrantedly definite given Rothstein’s conclusions, and on par with the ‘schools can fix it all’ approach. It is possible that they have wrongly deemed social reform ineffective due to uncertain research on neighborhood effects.

It is true that the research on neighborhood effects is somewhat inconclusive mostly due to the limitations and problems associated with current research in the field; however, this is not to say neighborhoods have no effects on education. In a review of research conducted by Furstenberg and Hughes (1997), the authors nonetheless acknowledge that neighborhoods impact the children that live in them (just as children and adults impact their communities) through schools and other outlets, particularly given the numerous subjectivities of individuals in communities and social and cultural capital (or lack thereof). However, existing research in the area of neighborhood effects on children is limited due to a myriad of research-related restraints: a broad-based definition of neighborhoods, inadequate sampling, lack of longitudinal, quantitative data, and few multi-level designs. Jencks and Mayer (1990) name other limitations of neighborhood effects research: difficulty of finding adequate measures and capturing external or paramount factors, making a comprehensive pattern of neighborhood effects difficult to achieve. However, this research is not without interesting food for thought, particularly for those who do not acknowledge the link between educational, social, and economic policy. Increasing the mean income of an area (as defined by zip code) by $1,000 leads to more education on average — .103 more years for whites and .0087 for blacks — even when considering personal background factors (p. 135). Additionally, if a student were to move from an elementary school with a 54% poverty population to 18% poverty population, tests scores would increase by one-sixth of a standard deviation (p. 146). Thus, even if Whitehurst and Croft (2010) were justified in saying that there is no place for neighborhood-based social and economic reform in education reform, it does not mute research on the adverse effects of poverty on student access, opportunities, and outcomes. Moreover, there are areas where neighborhood-based education reform has achieved so much.

Take the Neighborhoods Centers approach in Houston, Texas. The Metropolitan Revolution details Neighborhood Centers’ community-based assistance and educational success in Gulfton. Despite high poverty and low educational attainment, the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center has effectively helped the community through access to health clinics, banks, citizenship assistance, adult education, preschool programs, recreation centers, and transportation. Through a strengths-based, holistic neighborhood approach much like the HCZ, the Center has boasted educational achievement for the citizens of Gulfton. Children in its Head Start programs score better on average in both reading and math than their counterparts, and every grade in the Center’s charter schools scores at least average or above average on national Stanford 10 tests — and students continue to increase performance every year (Katz and Bradley, 2013, p. 105). The analysis of the Center’s success and motives brings up an interesting connection: higher educational attainment means more jobs and a better economy — school reform is social and economic reform and vice versa. Think about this: only 49% of low-income students enter higher education after high school compared to 78% of higher income students (p. 103). Low-income children are bound to remain in a revolving door of poverty and low educational attainment and achievement, not to mention stagnated economies, if education policymakers continue to ignore the connection between social, economic, and educational reform.

The research connecting housing policy and education is also complex. Though narrow in analysis, the Moving to Opportunity program is often an exemplar of how housing policy does not impact education; the program did not propel huge differences in educational outcomes for students who moved to lower poverty schools. Yet, on average, students in this program still attended schools with high poverty — 45% poverty rates ranked in the 24th percentile (DuLuca & Rosenblatt, 2010, p. 1449,65). What if these students had moved to schools with lower poverty rates — truly low-poverty schools with less lower class and race-based segregation? In a study of the effects of inclusionary housing policy in Montgomery County, Maryland, the academic gains were large and significant in access to higher quality schools, higher achievement, and more educational attainment. For example, the achievement gap between low-income and significantly higher-income students waned by one half in math and one-third in reading by the seventh year. This study also found that children who attended schools at higher poverty levels (at or above 35%) did not have the same positive outcomes, all illustrating once again that social and economic reform are necessary to lessen the effects of poverty and foster a better education system for all students. Like Gulfton, Montgomery County’s understanding that an educated citizenry equates to a healthier future economy serves as an impetus for reform (Schwartz, 2010, p. 6, 35–6). Yet, importantly, here is an example of how reformers recognizing the link between housing, economic, and education policy served to benefit many– particularly students in poverty and individuals in the labor market.

In summation, education reform must recognize the ties between (the effects of) poverty and education, and the interchangeability of social, economic, housing, and education reform in providing better educational opportunities, access, and outcomes. While undoubtedly challenging work, urban areas are ideal platforms to develop, innovate, and conduct the required research for coupled policy initiatives given the close proximity of private and public partners, mayoral control, and city social services. Cultivating innovation districts allows businesses, organizations, governments, and individuals to come together to chart the future through ideas, renovations, and constructive conversations. What if education innovation districts existed to attack social and educational ills and provide comprehensive solutions like Rothstein and others suggest? Education reform is a vital part of any transformation, a transformation requiring one to “set [a] vision” and “find [a] game changer” (Katz and Bradley, 2013, p. 194). The vision is educational opportunity, access, and achievement, and the game changer is social and economic reform. It’s within reach, if only we realize it.

Works Cited

DeLuca, S. & Rosenblatt, P. (2010). Does Moving to Better Neighborhoods Lead to Better Schooling Opportunities? Teachers College Record, 112(5).

Furstenberg, F. & Hughes, M. (1997). The Influence of Neighborhoods on Children’s Development: A Theoretical Perspective and a Research Agenda, in J. Brooks-Gunn, G. Duncan, & J. Aber (Eds), Neighborhood Poverty: Policy Implications in Studying Neighborhoods, pp. 23–47, New York: Russell Sage Foundation

Jencks, C. & Mayer, S. (1990). The Social Consequences of Growing Up in a Poor Neighborhood. In L. Lynn & M. McGeary (Eds.), Inner-city Poverty in the United States, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Katz, B. & Bradley, J. (2013). The Metropolitan Revolution. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Korbin, J. & Coulton C. (1997). Understanding the Neighborhood Context for Children and Families: Combining Epidemiological and Ethnographic Approaches, in J. Brooks-Gunn, G. Duncan, & J. Aber (Eds), Neighborhood Poverty: Policy Implications in Studying Neighborhoods, pp. 65–79, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Ladd. H. & Fiske, E. (December 11, 2011). Class Matters: Why Won’t We Admit It? The New York Times.

PolicyLink. (n.a.). Promise Neighborhoods: Recommendations for a National Children’s Anti-Poverty Program Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone. Washington, D.C.: Obama-Biden Transition Report.

Rothstein, R. (2004). Class and Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Schwartz, H. (2010). Housing Policy is School Policy. New York: The Century Foundation. Retrieved from

Whitehurst, G.J. & Croft, M. (2010). The Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods, and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

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