A Tale of Two SituationsJul 26th, 2012 | By Anthony Austin
David Deming, Justine Hastings, Thomas Kane, and Douglas Staiger
NBER Working Paper No. 17438. 2011.
Students who attend urban schools in low-income communities lag far behind their more privileged counterparts in performance on standardized tests and high school and college graduation rates. While many acknowledge this achievement gap, there is no consensus on why it exists or what policymakers, principals, and teachers can do to close it.
Some have proposed that “poor culture” is at the root of the problems in low-income urban schools. This theory suggests that giving children from poor households the opportunity to attend a higher quality school would do little to improve educational outcomes, as long as student’s family and community culture remained poor.
A recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by David Deming, Justine Hastings, Thomas Kane, and Douglas Staiger, begs us to question the presumption that “poor culture” predestines underprivileged children for poverty.
In “School Choice, School Quality, and Postsecondary Attainment,” the authors analyzed the educational outcomes of 1,865 ninth graders from the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district in North Carolina. The authors compared students who won a lottery to attend a choice school between 2002 and 2003 to students from the same neighborhoods that applied to the same lottery but lost.
Most lottery winners were racial minorities from neighborhoods with low-quality schools. Many of these students were also eligible for free or reduced price lunch, suggesting that they also came from low-income households. School quality was measured by a composite of ninth grade math and English test scores, high school graduation rates, college entrance rates, and college graduation rates. The quality of the choice schools that lottery winners attended was roughly equivalent to the average public school in Charlotte-Mecklenberg, but choice schools were better than schools that most students would have attended if they had lost the lottery.
After controlling for student background, the researchers found that lottery winners had much better outcomes than their peers who lost the lottery and attended lower-quality schools. Lottery winners took more courses in math, obtained better grades in math and science, had fewer absences, were 8.7 percent more likely to graduate from high school, were 6.6 percent more likely to attend a four-year college, and were 5.7 percent more likely to graduate from college.
Lottery winners from neighborhoods with average or high quality schools demonstrated no improvements in educational outcomes after attending a choice school.
These findings have two implications for policymakers in education. First, it suggests that finding ways to improve school quality can improve outcomes for students regardless of their home culture. This provides strong support for the notion that filling the educational opportunity void in communities with abysmal school quality would empower disadvantaged youth to break free from the cycle of poverty.
Second, it suggests that researchers looking at the impact of expanding school choice should reconsider their baseline. Previous studies that simply provide an aggregated estimate of the effect of school choice may be significantly underestimating the benefit of school choice for students that would have otherwise attended low-quality schools. Researchers should reanalyze their data with an analytical framework that accounts for the quality of lottery applicants’ neighborhood school.
Feature Photo: cc/15bowery