Will the President Say Something Meaningful in SOTU about Inequality and Public Education?

Sean Reardon, the Stanford University sociologist has extensively documented the impact of neighborhood inequality on school achievement.

In a report released last fall, Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009, with Kendra Bischoff of Cornell University, Reardon describes residential segregation by income across our nation’s 117 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of 500,000 in 2009).  These metropolitan areas are, according to Bischoff and Reardon, “home to 197 million people.”

Bischoff and Reardon study the segregation of families, not households, because, “Segregation is likely more consequential for children than for adults for two reasons. First most children spend a great deal of time in their neighborhood, making that immediate context particularly salient for them, while adults generally work and socialize in a larger geographic area.  Second, for children, income segregation can lead to disparities in crucial public amenities, like schools, parks, libraries, and recreation.”

Children are affected by “neighborhood composition effects” such as the poverty rate, the average educational attainment level and the proportion of single parent families in their neighborhood as well as by “resource distribution effects” that include investments in their schools and recreation facilities as well as the presence of public hazards like pollution or crime.

While the research report is dense, the conclusions demonstrate clearly that in America we are increasingly raising our children in pockets of extreme poverty or pockets of extreme affluence:

  • By 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income, although, “During the last four decades, the isolation of the rich has been consistently greater than the isolation of the poor.”
  • Income segregation has grown significantly over four decades for black and Hispanic families, but particularly in the years since 2000.  While income inequality among black families did not grow significantly in the two most recent decades from 1990 to 2009, residential segregation by income did grow considerably among black families.  “Low-income black and Hispanic families are much more isolated from middle-class black and Hispanic families than are low-income white families from middle- and high-income white families.  The rapid growth of income segregation among black families has exacerbated the clustering of poor black families in neighborhoods with very high poverty rates.  And while middle class black families were less likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income black families, this does not mean that middle-class blacks gained access to middle-class white neighborhoods…”  Racial segregation continues even for the black middle class.

In an earlier 2011 study, Reardon demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap.  The inequality achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

During the George Bush and Barack Obama administrations, support has been bipartisan for a political agenda that fails to address child poverty and that ignores growing economic inequality and accompanying isolation of the poorest children in urban neighborhoods defined by their concentrated poverty.  The bipartisan agenda, established in the 2002 federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and perpetuated in ongoing policies like Race to the Top, has operated through sanctions for the schools and teachers struggling to raise test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities. Today’s bipartisan public school “reform” philosophy is dominated by the principles of competition (ranking and rating schools), creative disruption (closing schools and firing principals and teachers), and privatization (assuming that charter schools  and even on-line schools can magically address the needs of children who struggle).  There has been little conversation about addressing inequality, ameliorating poverty, or even bringing school funding up to a level of equity between wealthy and poor school districts.

In a recent guest post published as part of Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column, Kevin Welner, the director of the  National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, asks those who listen to President Obama’s State of the Union Message on Tuesday night, which is expected to address the issue of income inequality, to look for substantive plans to address inequality and not merely  “unproven and ineffectual treatments.”  Welner decries the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations:  “We heap demands on those schools, deprive them of the resources they urgently need, and then declare them to be ‘failing schools’ when they don’t perform miracles.”

Welner suggests our nation’s children living in poverty (an alarming 22 percent of all children in the United States) deserve a serious answer to this question: “How do I design, pass, and implement a package of policies that have been shown to be effective at addressing wealth inequality and the damage caused by that inequality?”  He suggests that strategies aimed to lift families out of poverty are, in reality, policies to improve school achievement.  “We should honestly consider policies like a guaranteed minimum income, increases in the minimum wage, and a tax structure that shifts the burden toward the extremely wealthy.  The way to reduce wealth inequality is to do just that: reduce wealth inequality.  Our public schools can help, but they cannot do it alone.”

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