Why isn’t education reform enough to change the trajectory of a neighborhood?

Lesson Learned

Based on the research and our own experience, we have concluded that it is neither reasonable nor sustainable to expect a school to outperform its neighborhood.

One of our main challenges is that people-based intervention approaches to poverty rarely takes “place” into consideration and are instead designed and delivered within programmatic silos.

Take education policy as just one example. Much of the debate around intergenerational poverty over the past two decades has been centered on education reform. The central plank to the education-focused approach to poverty reduction is that if we can simply turn failing schools into high performing schools, then all children will be put on a path to prosperity. It is an enticing proposition for several reasons. One, it is focused on one issue (education). Two, there is someone in charge who can be held accountable (school boards, superintendents, charter operators). And three, it’s relatively easy to measure success or failure (test scores).

This dynamic has produced a school reform movement that has changed the way education is delivered in many places in the country. The Teach For America program, the charter school movement, choice districts, and school voucher programs have all been birthed from this focus on education reform. Central to these initiatives is the notion that the solutions to poor educational outcomes reside strictly within the education domain. Better teachers, better principals, competition among schools, and other “school-centric” approaches dominate the reform effort. Nick Hanauer has usefully dubbed this type of approach “educationism.”

Our take-away is that schools are not failing due to poor management, but rather as a consequence of the conditions within which they are being asked to operate.

Once you look outside the education silo, competing explanations for poor educational outcomes become readily apparent. For example, poverty rates are a much better predictor of school performance than any internal measure of school management. Once you start looking at the research on the topic, all you find are charts showing highly positive correlations between school poverty rates and test scores.

When you compare the performance of the top 100 and bottom 100 ranked elementary schools in any state – this chart shows those in the state of Georgia – you find that there is not a single top-ranked elementary school serving a high poverty neighborhood in the state. It also shows that there is not a low-poverty school in the state that performs in the bottom tier of schools. (The few outliers on the chart are not neighborhood-serving schools.)

Should we assume that high performing schools just coincidently serve high-income neighborhoods? Should we assume that bad principals, disinterested teachers and indifferent school superintendents are to blame for the fact that low performing schools tend to concentrate in low-income neighborhoods?

Not only are silo-based initiatives fated to underperform if they fail to address the root causes of the problem, they can actually undermine those efforts if they are not designed properly.

For example, if the science suggests that positive educational outcomes are a product of healthy neighborhoods—because children born into healthy neighborhoods and are not subjected to sources of toxic stress and are better prepared to learn and thrive—then school reform initiatives that detach the school from its neighborhood will actually undermine the health of neighborhoods. The local neighborhood-serving school is a critical economic development asset for a neighborhood because it attracts and retains families. School systems with open enrollment policies actually impede the health of neighborhoods, because they provide no incentives for families to move to a neighborhood with a high-performing school.

Based on the research and our own experience, we have concluded that it is neither reasonable nor sustainable to expect a school to outperform its neighborhood. We conclude this, because we know that it is largely the sources of toxic stress to which children are exposed to in their neighborhood that is the driver of educational (and all other) outcomes. Shipping a child outside of their neighborhood—even to a high-performing school—does not address this root cause of the problem. From this we conclude that education reform strategies must be centered on neighborhood-serving schools. It is the necessary (though by no means sufficient) condition for creating thriving young adults.

The information for this Lesson Learned is included in POVERTY AND PLACE: A Review of the Science and Research That Have Impacted Our Work, a white paper that offers an overview of selected research that has informed our thinking as we continue to fight against intergenerational urban poverty.

86% of third graders who live in concentrated poverty can't read at grade level. That's one of the most important predictive factors when looking at someone's academic future, but also their economic future and their health outcomes.
Carol Naughton, Chief Executive Officer of Purpose Built Communities