Schools Alone: Poverty and Policy in the City

Authored By 
Kelly Goodman
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
February 1, 2016

Education policymakers across the ideological spectrum have shared their opinions about the Obama administration’s recent decision to roll back Race to the Top testing requirements. By contrast, the slow fade of Promise Neighborhoods, another evidence-backed education policy from the 2008 stimulus package, has been overlooked.  This is an odd reversal of fortunes: incentivizing performance with standards is only the most recent front of a long-running culture war over what it takes to fight poverty—schools or neighborhoods? Promise Neighborhoods embeds the Harlem Children’s Zone’s “whatever it takes” model, combining a charter school with community services, in federal poverty policy.

These programs were founded out of a persistent hope that schools overcome, rather than reproduce, societal divisions. With deep roots in American educational thought, the idea that schools solve poverty repeats in education policy history, from the 19th century common school movement to the Great Society.   Contemporary education policy revives questions of geography and evidence.  The stakes of identifying the right scale are high: budget-crunched policymakers find the most effective scale; then, after testing programs, replicate them with public and private funds.

On the geography scale, while many Americans idealize a neighborhood school within walking distance, home and quality school are often far apart. The impact of racial segregation in housing and employment on school attendance has been extensively documented. Short of integration, spatial mismatch sets up a few policy options: make the schools good where the students are or move the students to where the good schools are, either directly via transit or housing or indirectly through the lure of specialized programming.  In the HCZ, the model is to make the schools good in Harlem, for Harlem children.

On the evidence scale, Promise Neighborhoods were based both on the HCZ, and a particular evaluation of its efficacy. 2009 research by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer and one of his graduate students, Will Dobbie, seemed to show the HCZ erased the black-white test score achievement gap by middle school.  Divining responsibility for this result, Fryer and Dobbie ruled out community investments alone but argued high-quality schools alone, or in combination with community investments, explained Harlem students’ test score gains. The research, initially released as a working paper through the National Bureau of Economic Research, was not peer-reviewed when the policy elite first saw it. 

Two years later, the story shifted: high-quality schools alone were sufficient. Schools were made master key to unlock poverty policy.  However, since its launch in 2010, the Promise Neighborhoods grant program has required community investments.  Indeed, the focus is more on the community than the schools: many Promise Neighborhoods work with existing schools, including traditional public schools, rather than starting charter schools from scratch, as in the HCZ. 

Whatever the limitations of economic methodology revealed in Fryer and Dobbie’s revision process, to some extent, the school versus community debate is over definitions rather than substance. Fryer and Dobbie measure community investment as residence in a neighborhood subject to increased investment–the 24 blocks of Harlem in the core zone–rather than program participation itself.  Functionally, though, schools took on community roles, providing social supports from community organizers to dentists.  The school became the community for students who spent most of their time there.

The idea that a school should be of, and open to, its community has long existed, and been deployed to different ends. In their study of 1930s “community schools” in the company town of Flint, MI, home to General Motors, the historians Ansley Erickson and Andrew Hightower reveal the schools came out of a business-backed push for social stability during economic crisis. The Flint model spread across the country in the following decades with the help of a homegrown Flint foundation and Community School Directors trained to provide not just the HCZ’s “cradle-to-college” but rather “cradle to the grave” services.

The 1960s iteration of community in the schools was first about services, then about decisions. To take one well-regarded compensatory program as comparison, today’s HCZ services read like a reprieve of the American Federation of Teachers’ More Effective Schools program, implemented in 21 low-performing NYC schools in 1965. By contrast, the community control movement did not spend to catch poor students up: the movement, driven both by black power activists and private foundations, transferred control over a school’s budget and personnel to elected community boards. At the same time, another spatial strategy was in play: moving students to schools. Busing for integration severed the link between residence and education. Mandatory, court-ordered busing proved controversial, though, and drove a return to remediation or choice strategies.

All of these community and school programs have been thoroughly researched. The right combination remains elusive, perhaps because the research itself moves. Who decides what neighborhood or community means, and how to measure it, matters. The answer determines who decides the larger debate over poverty policy.

Kelly Goodman is a fourth year history Ph.D and an ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow.  She researches tax and school policy at the intersection of political economy, political history, and economic history.