Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Can a School Transform a Neighborhood?

Mike Petrilli had an interesting post over at Flypaper yesterday, in which he writes that Arne Duncan's argument that "the only way you change communities is by having great public schools in those communities" is preposterous.

I say "interesting" for two main reasons:

1.) I'm not really that surprised, since Mike Petrilli is probably the most contrarian writer over there, but it's still somewhat surprising to see somebody from Fordham -- a group that has labeled Richard Rothstein and Charles Murray "defeatists" for doubting the efficacy of schools -- arguing that there's something schools can't do.

2.) I think it's a generally interesting question.  Can a school, or a group of schools, transform a neighborhood?  There's no question that the effects of poverty and the performance of students and schools are heavily intertwined, but it's yet to be seen exactly how much changing one can change the other.

The debate on the links between neighborhoods and schooling has generally been focused more on the reverse hypothesis: i.e. can fixing a neighborhood fix its schools (or, at the societal level, can eradicating poverty close the achievement gap)?

Petrilli quotes colleague Jamie O'Leary saying that "schools need to improve despite the neighborhoods; improving poor neighborhoods is beyond the capacity (or purpose) of public schools."  That's an interesting take.  I can see why, in the short run, the last thing somebody running a school would be worried about was whether their school was transforming a neighborhood.  But, in the long run, if good schools can't improve neighborhoods then what's the point of good schools?  If closing the achievement gap didn't reduce poverty, then what, exactly, would be the point of closing the achievement gap?

Sure, helping kids succeed academically is nice.  But if it doesn't translate into a better job and higher standard of living, doesn't it ring kind of hollow?  If there was no achievement gap in this country, but just as much poverty; just as much crime; just as much despair; and just as much suffering, would it really be a significant better place to live?

Petrilli challenges readers to name a single community that has been transformed as the result of the performance of the local school.  Off the top of my head, I cannot name such a community (which doesn't mean it hasn't happened), but I can offer some thoughts on how, hypothetically, such an outcome would occur:

First, Superman shows up and turns the local schools in a down and out neighborhood into the best schools in the area.  As a result, two things happen: 1.)kids learn more; and 2.) homes in that neighborhood become more desirable.  As kids learn more, they become more likely to do their homework and less likely to loiter around or otherwise terrorize the neighborhood after school.  As word spreads that the neighborhood has good schools and docile teenagers, interest in the neighborhood increases and gentrification begins.  Homes previously in disrepair are renovated, abandoned factories are turned into hip lofts, and vacant lots are filled with fancy new townhomes.  Home prices (and rents) increase.  Stable families with more money and higher achieving kids move in.  Unstable families with less money and lower achieving kids move out.  The parents in the neighborhood take pride in their local schools and band together with the new arrivals to form a community association.  This association bands together to clean up the neighborhood, raise money for community center, ballfields, and community garden, and demand more amenities from their local politicians.  With all the kids now attending school during the day and attending tutoring or playing on the newly constructed athletic fields after school, crime continues to drop and housing prices continue to rise.  The kids in the neighborhood go on to attend college and get high-paying jobs.  Some move back to their still-improving neighborhood, raising the average income and education levels of the neighborhood even further, and join the community association.  Their kids attend the local schools and are excellent students who stay out of trouble, do their homework, and volunteer in the community.  By this point, the neighborhood is a happy, healthy place to raise children.

Which isn't to say that all is right with the world: some of the former residents who were forced out by price increases caused by the gentrification are no better off.  Other neighborhoods still have problems.  But not this one.  This one's been fixed as a result of the prowess of all the local schools.  And all thanks to Superman, who decided to leave Lex Luther alone and make them the talk of the town.

Ok, so that's obviously the dream scenario.  But the general gist is plausible.  If nothing else, better schools could certainly help spur gentrification.  Whether or not that really improves a neighborhood (since so many of the residents would be forced out) is up for debate.  But, in the long run, better educated children returning to a neighborhood to raise their children would certainly have a positive impact on both a neighborhood and its local schools.  On the other hand, one could argue that in this scenario that it's really the improving neighborhood that sustains the quality of the schools over time.  And, at the same time, that it would've been more efficient to simply improve the neighborhood and watch the local schools soar (instead of waiting for Superman to turn them around).

I've been involved in more than one discussion of whether fixing schools or fixing neighborhoods is the more effective way to reduce poverty.  Before I started teaching, and before I started grad school, I had that debate in my head.  I decided to enter education, and then decided to study education policy, because I sided with the former position: that fixing schools was the most realistic and efficient way to improve the lives of low-income children -- and subsequently improve our nation.  After spending some time studying the effects of poverty on academic performance, I now find myself sitting on the fence.  I'm not convinced we really know the answer to the question.  I have little doubt that, when taken to the extremes, both are true.  If we were able to actually transform a neighborhood (which likely would require extraordinary amounts of time, effort, and money), the local schools would certainly be better -- and I think if we were able to fix our school system (again, requiring a lot of time, effort, and money) then it would go a long way toward improving our worst neighborhoods.  On the one hand, fixing a school (though certainly not easy), has to be easier than fixing a neighborhood, but fixing a neighborhood (if possible) has to have larger effects.  I suspect that some combination of reforms have to be undertaken at both levels in order to fix both, but I digress . . .

The fixing neighborhoods versus fixing schools debate can be another post (or a hundred posts) for another time (maybe then I'll use language less simplistic than "fixing"), but I'll end by asking a different set of questions:

1.) Can the local schools become, and remain, excellent without first improving the neighborhood?

2.) If so, can the local schools become, and remain, excellent without subsequently altering the neighborhood in which they're located?

3.) Can anybody point to one example where a poor, crime-ridden, and disorderly neighborhood housed and sustained excellent neighborhood schools for multiple decades with no significant changes to the community before, during, or after this time period?

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