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“This Study PROVES..."

The fine folks at B4K have a great advantage over schlubs like me: they are unencumbered by the doubts that come from thinking about stuff...



This is the question asked and answered by Harvard economics professors Roland Fryer and Lawrence Katz in their recent study (here).   The short answer is: good schools and good teachers matter more. 

Oh, well, that's settled then! On the basis of one study, we now know that teachers matter more than neighborhoods! Great! Let's move on...

Uh, but before we do, could we look at page 10 of the actual study?

So when per capita income increases for a neighborhood, test scores rise in what appears to be an incredibly strong correlation. Hmm... do you think there might be more to this than the "short answer" B4K is selling?

Me too.

I was less interested in the paper than the citations, which included some really interesting studies. There does seem to be some good evidence that if you change a child's neighborhood - but don't change his family circumstances or the family income level at his school - there won't be much of an effect on his test scores.

Should that really surprise anyone? And does this at all show that teachers "matter" more than neighborhoods?

In one of the studies cited, families got vouchers to move to higher-income neighborhoods -but the schools weren't populated by students whose families had higher incomes. Well, that suggests to me that the new neighborhoods weren't that much different from the old neighborhoods. Yes, there were changes in other outcomes like adults' physical and mental health - great! But maybe larger changes are necessary to affect educational outcomes; maybe incremental changes in environment just aren't enough.

But that doesn't mean that environment isn't important. If you're going to argue that the chart above doesn't matter - and, indeed, that is exactly what B4K is saying - you need to put forward a logical counter-theory. You need to spell out the differences between high-performing and low-performing schools other than socio-economic status.

Now, B4K has a pretty simple agenda when it comes to public schools:

  • Charters, vouchers, and various other forms of "choice."
  • Merit pay.
  • Value-added teacher evaluations.
  • Gutting tenure and pretty much eliminating seniority.
  • Weakening credentialing standards.
  • Publishing teacher evaluations (no, really, they want that. Honest.)
Do we find any of these differences between high-performing and low-performing schools? Dr. Baker?
Yeah, not so much.
So how about we flip things around a bit? How about we come at this from the perspective that neighborhoods and schools are reflections of the lives of students? That the relative "failures" of neighborhoods and schools don't cause poverty, but are symptoms of poverty? 
Let's try this theory:
  • The neighborhood the child lives in is a reflection of his or her family's socio-economic status (SES). 
  • The neighborhood school is a reflection of the neighborhood families' SES.
  • Moving a family to a marginally "better" neighborhood - a neighborhood not "better" enough to have a "better" school - will have little impact on academic outcomes, especially if the SES of the family doesn't change.
To my mind, then, the answer is clear: if we raise the socio-economic status of all families in America, we have the best chance of raising the educational outcomes of all students. Certainly, B4K has presented far more evidence in this post to back up that policy prescription than "choice" and VAM and gutting tenure and publishing teacher evaluations.
This in no way means that teachers aren't important or that schools don't matter or that increasing resources to schools that serve children in poverty won't help those children. But it's time to stop dancing around the issue and be straight: the primary problem in American eduction today isn't our public school system - it's poverty.
So we can screw around with reformy, billionaire-backed polices, or we can get serious and go after poverty once and for all. We can continue to delude ourselves by twisting the research so we get the answers we want, or we can face up to what's really going on in this country. We can take one study and convince ourselves that it proves "poverty isn't destiny," or we can act like adults and have a serious conversation about the lives of America's children.
What's it going to be?

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Jersey Jazzman

Jersey Jazzman is the pseudonym for Mark Weber, a New Jersey public school teacher and parent. He is the Special Analyst for Education Policy at the New Jer...