You couldn't tell from the Republican primary season so far, but education, as a campaign issue, should move to the forefront of voter concern as we approach the fall election. A College Board poll last month reported that two-thirds of voters in nine swing states felt education is extremely important to them personally. About the same time, a task force report from the Council on Foreign Relations declared, "Educational failure puts the United States future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk." By the time the formal campaign for president begins in early September, the candidates will be talking a lot more about the subject — especially since the same poll showed that voters link education to getting the economy on track.
President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, seem to have more in common than not when it comes to education. Both support many of the same initiatives such as an increase in early childhood programs and the number of charter schools, and a continuation of the high-stakes testing started underPresident George W. Bush. Both like to paint bad teachers as the reason for schools failing and promise to fire them.
But as one teacher, Rebecca Sayler of Atlanta, wrote to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, "If you get rid of all of the bad teachers (which I hope you do, but doubt you will able to do if you only use test scores as indicators of effectiveness), we will still have students who are reading below grade level and unable to demonstrate even basic skills in other areas. That's because the main problem in education isn't teachers. The main problem is poverty."
Today, 1 in 5 children live in families with incomes below the poverty level, and the nation is experiencing a significant widening in income disparity. The achievement gap between high- and low-income families, known as the income achievement gap, has grown 40 percent larger among children born in the last decade than those born 25 years ago, according to Stanford researcher Sean Reardon. This income achievement gap is twice the much more frequently cited black-versus-white achievement gap.
The effects of poverty on learning have been argued in political and education circles for decades, but it's a topic politicians won't want to touch in this election year. This is in spite of an extensive and growing body of research showing that schools in poor neighborhoods don't work as well — and that when given the chance, poor children who attend schools in wealthier neighborhood do much better.
The argument over the role of poverty in student learning had its defining moment in 1966, when Johns Hopkins University researcher James Coleman authored his landmark study, "Equality of Educational Opportunity." Authorized by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the study was expected to show that minority students were being denied a quality education due to inadequate funding of schools. Instead, Coleman found that other factors, such as the income and educational level of a child's family and classmates, were more important determinants of success. The findings suggested that minority students would benefit by being in more integrated schools. As a result, many districts implemented plans to transport black students to majority-white schools in the late-1960s and 1970s (a practice the Supreme Court eventually struck down in a number of districts).
In January, a new generation of researchers took up the charge laid down by Coleman in a report titled "The Future of School Integration." Looking at more recent research, they found "that the academic benefits of desegregation came not from giving African-American students a chance to sit next to whites but from giving poor students of all races a chance to attend middle class schools." By attending schools in more affluent communities, poorer students were surrounded by more academically engaged classmates who were less likely to act out, more involved parents, and better teachers. The good news is that some 80 districts across the country are now quietly working to reduce the number of high-poverty schools (where more than 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) by leading efforts to further integrate better-off with poor students. The authors point out that these communities are avoiding problems associated with the busing controversy through thoughtful planning, relying on voluntary choice, and incentives such as magnet schools. One of the most successful is occurring in Montgomery County, where the county government requires developers to set aside a percentage of housing in various subdivisions for low-income families. The program has shown significant progress in reducing the achievement gap in math and reading.
The percentage of high-poverty schools nationwide increased from 12 percent to 19 percent in the past decade. (In Baltimore, three-quarters of students attend high-poverty schools, up from 60 percent in 2000. The second-highest percentage is in Wicomico county, with 29. The statewide figure is 19 percent.) Students attending these schools are less likely to graduate from high school, and those who do are less likely to go to college. As the authors suggest, the idea of economic school integration can be one of the most cost-effective ways to produce what the nation desperately needs: highly skilled workers. When it comes to the debate during the fall campaign over how to fix our schools and prepare students for the challenges of the global marketplace, we can no longer afford to ignore ideas that work — whether the politicians choose to or not.
James Campbell, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates (1978-2002) and a former member of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners (2003-2010), works as a senior communications manager at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.