Enough platitudes. What we need from a mayor is a plan to increase socioeconomic diversity in our schools.

The candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary have generally offered voters only platitudes on education reform. What's needed is a plan to increase socioeconomic diversity by ensuring a critical mass of middle-class students in as many schools as possible.

Photo from DCPS website.

For the most part, the candidates' positions on education have been limited to saying that the quality of teachers and administrators should be high on our agenda. They have argued that all children in our public school system, regardless of their socioeconomic background, deserve an excellent education. But these goals, while appealing to voters, are devoid of content.

What would a detailed reform proposal include? Whether we support charter or traditional schools, mayoral control or boards of education, teachers' unions or test-based systems of accountability, we should be united in support of policies that increase socioeconomic diversity.

Benefits of diversity

While the scientific evidence for education reform is not nearly as scientific as many data-driven reformers claim, a strong consensus exists on two things. Low-income kids score significantly higher on standardized tests when they attend non-majority-poor schools than they do when they attend majority-poor schools. And middle-income kids do not suffer academically when they share schools and classrooms with a minority of low-income students.

Ideally, we would be able to reduce the number of majority-poor schools in our system. But we have a limited ability to do that, because the vast majority of kids who attend public schools in DC are low-income.

Further complicating the matter, many middle-class parents have over the years been reluctant to send their kids to majority-poor schools. (I'm using "middle-class" to include low-income parents with a middle-class commitment to education.)

But do schools actually need to have a majority of middle-class students in order to achieve the benefits researchers have identified? That's far from clear.

Not all majority-poor schools are the same, and so far researchers haven't been able to distinguish between low-income schools that have, for example, good principals and teachers and those that do not. Nor have they distinguished between schools serving different low-income ethnic groups or focused specifically on schools in diverse neighborhoods.

Many people seem to question the sanity of middle-class parents who send their kids to majority-poor schools. But they are in fact enrolling their kids in these schools with a confidence that bucks conventional wisdom.

And what their actions suggest is that more and more middle-class parents would send their kids to majority-poor schools if our diverse public schools are able to maintain a critical mass of middle-class families.

What's a "critical mass"?

What would qualify as a critical mass? I have not found any research on this subject, but personal experience and the statistical data suggest that for many middle-class families living in diverse neighborhoods, 20 to 30% middle-class would win their loyalty and commitment.

As a middle-class parent of children enrolled in an early childhood development program at a majority-poor neighborhood elementary school, I am not convinced that socioeconomic segregation is inevitable. I'm also not convinced that low-income and higher-income students have such different academic needs that both groups can't be educated successfully in the same classroom.

Even at majority-poor schools, low-income kids surely derive some benefits from their middle-class peers. Middle-class parents may invest their time and energy in the school, and rising test scores and a growing reputation for academic excellence can boost school morale. These benefits are especially likely to arise if there is a critical mass of middle-class families and the school is located in a diverse neighborhood.

And what about the effects of a majority-poor elementary school on middle-class kids? In my experience, many poor kids do need remedial help, but the vast majority are not disruptive and are as eager to learn as middle-class kids. As long as early childhood and elementary school classes spend a lot of time working in small groups, students will be able to learn at their own pace.

That's one reason attracting and maintaining a critical mass of middle-class families is so important. Middle-class parents need to know that their children will have a group of peers working at the same level in their classrooms.

"Controlled choice" focuses on the wrong problem

Advocates of a "controlled choice" assignment system have also focused on creating more diverse schools, but they have misidentified the problem. The primary challenge is not to protect low-income students from being displaced by a wave of middle-class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods, as they argue.

Rather, the problem is the inability of many elementary schools and nearly all middle and high schools in diverse neighborhoods to attract and maintain a critical mass of middle-class families.

To solve that problem, we need to engineer greater coordination between our two public school systems, DCPS and charter. Middle-class parents who enroll their kids in majority-poor schools are under constant pressure to defect before other middle-class families do. And an abundance of charter schools that appeal to middle-class families makes it easier for them to do that.

This situation cannot be rectified easily. But if our solution to under-performing schools is to open another charter school, schools that would otherwise be able to attract a critical mass of middle-class parents will suffer defections.

Middle schools

By middle school, middle-class parents want something more than a critical mass of peers. Majority-poor middle schools will also need a full complement of school courses and extra-curricular activities if they're going to attract higher-income parents. This latter requirement will present our next mayor with his or her greatest challenge.

Schools that are presently underenrolled, whether they remain DCPS or are converted to charters, will have to be fully funded. We can't assume that the same middle-class families who have contributed to our elementary school revival will, one brave family at a time, spark a comparable middle- and high-school revival without that.

An alternative (perhaps complementary) solution would be to open schools in middle-class neighborhoods that already have great schools and reserve a percentage of seats at both new and old schools for the out-of-boundary lottery. That may seem unfair, but it would ensure that schools in those areas would be both diverse and majority middle-class.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that, given the socioeconomic imbalance in our school system and the economic segregation in the District, most DC parents will be sending their kids to schools serving only low-income families for the foreseeable future.

If those parents don't win a lottery seat at a diverse school, they should be given a choice between their neighborhood school or a nearby charter school with a proven track-record of serving low-income kids.

But these kinds of decisions need to be made in the spirit of cooperation, not pure competition, because a school system cannot plan rationally for the future if its two parts are making decisions independently of each other.

Our next mayor will have a chance to set our public school system on a path of sustainable long-term improvement. But if we merely "double down" on present strategies, as the incumbent mayor says he would do, or take refuge in platitudes, as his competitors have largely done, we won't solve the problem of middle-class dispersal. And a set of enrollment patterns will get entrenched that will be very difficult to reverse.

Aaron Hanna is a political scientist who lives in Washington DC. He teaches courses in political theory and international relations and is presently trying to finish a novel he began while living with his family in Nairobi, Kenya.  


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Whatever it does, don't do forced busing. I was bused for middle school and the result is nothing but an educational set-back and loos for all students in a school.

Look at magnet programs instead

by Jack Jackson on Mar 14, 2014 12:47 pm • linkreport

Your diagnosis is correct, Aaron. Unfortunately, feasible solutions aren't forthcoming, because socioeconomic segregation has been THE key feature driving planning, land use, civic policy, real estate and finance, and intra-regional migration patterns for something like the last 50 years, starting with Brown v. Board. Undoing that is devilishly difficult, and many of the proposed solutions - like busing - come with downsides of their own, on top of breeding resentment from major segments of the population.

When you figure it out, let me know - there's a Nobel Prize with your name on it.

by Dizzy on Mar 14, 2014 4:16 pm • linkreport

I have to agree with Dizzy a lot of this has been preset. The massive building boom in DC has virtually guaranteed that middle class parents cannot live in DC. There are not enough 3 bedroom apartments, their is a scarcity of small houses and too many efficiencies.

Plus if you really want to have "Deal like" amenities you have to have enough kids to fill at least a classroom of 30 kids per school so that you have enough rigor that you can teach to that level and you have to figure out how to accept that you are going to be segregating via advanced classes in schools. I went to inner city largely minority schools in Denver but because they tracked those classes, I had classes that were a majority white and middle class. In DC I don't know that you would have majority white but they would be majority middle class and they would be a privileged set within the school. DC did away with that in the 80's due to law suites and most principals, teachers and administrators seem pretty adamant about not bringing back tracking. But if you don't there will not be enough trust by middle class parents to take a chance on the schools. Frankly we are at a stand off.

by DC Parent on Mar 15, 2014 8:51 am • linkreport

Hello Aaron,

I could go on at great length, but as of now citizen demand is the major driver toward quality programming that draws families to DCPS.

Many citizens regardless of background will come together around this and the City will listen. There are ward or neighborhood level groups working on what they want for their neighborhood in many areas including Ward 4, 2, 5, 7 and on Capitol Hill.

If you're in Ward 4 we'd love to have you involved in what we're doing in middle grades, for example.

by Andy on Mar 15, 2014 9:29 am • linkreport

Dear Aaron,

Nice piece; however, I think you have mischaracterized the Washington Post Op Ed you cite above. In the Op Ed the authors indicate that changing demographics in the city can be used as an *opportunity* to rework the boundary feed system. They do mention neighborhoods flipping but that is not the rationale for controlled choice in urban education. In fact, the article you cite on promoting diversity at the start of your piece was in fact written by one of the Op Ed contributors, Richard Kahlenberg. His work is valuable: http://tcf.org/bookstore/detail/the-future-of-school-integration

For more discussion on the issue, think about attending the following forum:

by Marie on Mar 15, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

For further articulation of controlled choice and emphasizing socioeconomic diversity in public education, check out the following:

by Marie on Mar 15, 2014 1:01 pm • linkreport

Excellent column. But I believe content of instruction is also crucial. I was stunned to read in the Post (3/13) that DCPS is only now 'proposing' basic required courses. And the proposals strike me as very thin -- only half a year each of science and social studies for 6th grade? Only six instruction periods?

Arlington, to pick one example, requires a full year of both science and social studies at all three grades as well as seven instructional periods (one is Health/P.E) for middle schools.

I expect parents would be reluctant to send a child to any middle school with weak academic offerings, regardless of other demographics.

by Willow on Mar 16, 2014 12:00 pm • linkreport

It would be great if we could have lots of schools that were majority non-poor so that the demonstrated educational benefits for kids from poverty would arrive.

If only we could make DC's schools' students not poor.

I would suggest that your experience as a consumer of early childhood education does not translate to middle school experience.

I would further suggest that your 20-30% not poor school as a level that might work / be acceptable to middle-class families is a bit on the low side... by about 20%.

I would also suggest that absent strong rules to force these levels of diversity, we would quickly see the successful not-poor schools go above this cut-off and attract an increasing number of not-poor that would recreate the economic segregation we see now.

There are just not enough 'not-poor' in the system. Some of this is different family choices (earlier birth, larger family size among the poor), but non-poor families moving to the suburbs is the other route to reduced population and a worse ratio of higher income families in DCPS. Forced socioeconomic diversity is a quick route to bump up the migration of not-poor families to the suburbs.

Some questions:
What is your definition of Poor, Not-Poor. Is this the same a Free and Reduced Lunch?

How many not poor students would be needed in the different schools to get the socioeconomic diversity?

With the existing DCPS school demographics, (i.e. number and distribution of not-poor children in DCPS), how many schools could be created with the target socioeconomic profile you suggest?

by been there, done that on Mar 16, 2014 12:16 pm • linkreport

A "plan to increase socioeconomic diversity in our schools" is exactly what we need to undo the progress we've made attracting young families back into the District.

by Bob on Mar 16, 2014 1:46 pm • linkreport

Perhaps all school districts are insanely complex, but DC does seem to present policy makers with a more dizzying set of variables than most. My neighborhood, Petworth north of Grant Circle, is increasingly diverse - increasing latino, white, ethiopian, mix-race, etc. and increasingly middle-class - but has the kind of mixed housing stock that ensures it will retain its diversity for the foreseeable future. Can our neighborhood schools reflect this diversity? Should they? These are the two questions that follow me to and from school almost every day. These are not, I realize, the same questions that would follow me to my kids' school if we lived in a different part of the city and attended a school with a different socioeconomic profile.

It is not easy to put all of one's thoughts in a short blog entry, much less make strong, logical arguments, and I share the doubts / criticisms of many of the commentators (both because of the limits of the format and the limits of the author). How do I define poor? Good question. How do I define middle-class? Another conceptual headache, I would argue. Certainly there are various gradations within each crude category, and they have different implications for the opportunities and challenges a school faces.

Do we really need majority middle-class schools to appeal to middle-class families living in diverse neighborhoods? My experience - limited as it is - suggests otherwise. And the popularity of some charter and neighborhood schools suggests that a critical mass would comfort a large number of education-minded parents. I realize some middle-class parents would prefer to send their kids to majority middle-class rather than majority-poor schools, but this preference, I would argue, is not entirely rational (which is merely to say that most of the decisions we make as human beings flirt with irrationality).

Would increasing socioeconomic diversity undo the progress we've made in attracting young families back into the district? I suppose forced integration would chase some families out of areas that are now overwhelming affluent. But how would increasing socioeconomic diversity at majority-poor schools scare middle-class families away? If I were to indulge in a little doomsday forecasting, I would argue that if we continue on our present reform / development trajectory, a mini middle-class exodus is more likely than not. Policy makers seem to be taking middle-class loyalty to the city for granted. I would also argue that DC has not attracted middle-class families to the city. DC attracted young professionals and artists and tech entrepreneurs to the city, and they decided to stay, largely because they are members of the post-suburban generation and free pre-k and improving elementary school options.

What I would emphasize in the blog if I could do a little rewrite, is my concern over the fact that we have two public school systems - charter and traditional - acting independently of each other. This must be hugely counterproductive, from a planning perspective. It reminds me of a debate in defense reform that lasted for most of the previous century over the independence of the three services, and the problem in an armed conflict when each service has its own communication system, its own tactical preferences, its own hierarchy and chain of command.

Thanks for your comments, everyone, and for the thoughts they will certainly spur in the days and weeks ahead. As for the invitation to join a ward 4 citizen group, I would be thrilled.

by Aaron Hanna on Mar 16, 2014 3:53 pm • linkreport

Aaron - it takes guts to publish all these thoughts online. ForWard4 is the working name of an Ward 4 education activist group; this latest effort is on middle schools. Email me at andrewrowe at gmail and I can try to fill you in.

by Andy on Mar 16, 2014 6:18 pm • linkreport

When my wife and I bought our home in Ward 7 seven years ago, we bought with the expectation that when we had a child old enough to attend school - at least past kindergarten - that we would have to move to where the better school districts are, namely, NOVA.

We fully realize that by moving out we perpetuate the cycle, but we assume that everyone else does too. We may be middle-income, and possibly upper income for those who would attend public school with our children (not necessarily the same as the stats for the neighborhood on whole). That said, it would be really hard to afford living in Arlington or Alexandria without giving up a lifestyle we've built here.

I've met people who tried to 'stick it out' in the local and then charter schools, were very involved in their schools, and were very relieved to move to Virginia. That said, I do see more families in my neighborhood with small children, so hopefully we'll be following closely in their footsteps.

by family planning on Mar 18, 2014 9:53 pm • linkreport

Greater economic diversity in schools is certainly a laudable goal in the abstract, but given our economic demographics it seems rather unlikely to work in dc where 80 PCT of public students are poor.

I do think it makes sense to have reform the out of boundary lottery to hold a certain number of oob seats open in high performing schools and to give explicit preference to free and reduced meal eligible students. The current lottery does nothing to advance these goals and, as with most things, favors the information rich.

I also think middle and upper middle class receptivity to increased SES diversity varies considerably by grade and also by academic attainment of the poor who might make up a majority of the student body. I seriously doubt there is a lot of receptivity to more than 50% poor. And, of course poor is a pretty coarse descriptor, it's not the income per se, that makes middle class parents leery it is a particular combination of factors that characterize a significant portion of DC's poorer students, multigenerational poverty, living in concentrated areas of poverty, low educational attainment of parents, very young parents, exposure to drugs, crime and violence. etc. If it were all "noble poor" folks who share middle class values--particularly toward education and deferred gratification, this would be almost a non-issue.

Bigger picture for DC I think there would be greater willingness to "mix" in middle school if neighborhood elementary schools, dealt with the worst effects of poverty on school readiness--not just proficiency but also attitudes and values so students can begin to build social capital and believe in education as a pathway to middle class...this also means schools that deliver full services and work hard to reach parents and help them invest in their children.

If we make progress on that front, people won't be so fraught about the SES ratio because almost everyone will be a learner.

The other piece of neighborhood schools is that they can be anchor institutions for neighborhoods, particularly poorer neighborhoods where there may not be as many "good examples" in the community or counter narratives that reinforce the idea that education is the ticket up and out.

While i don't blame parents for bailing out on failing neighborhood schools to "save" their children, there certainly tremendous loss in the neighborhoods where all the most motivated parents have sent their kids elsewhere, via the oob lottery.

It's a brutally tough nut to crack. The short term band aids provide immediate relief for those who can take advantage of the opportunity but they also lock in some of the worst problems in the neighborhoods/communities that need the most help.

And, of course, the middle and upper middle class families can always vote with their feet. They are not captive to the system and can't just be deployed in a manner that education planners think will be most beneficial to the overall system. That's just not the calculus parents use to make decisions for their kids.

by Almost maryland on Mar 19, 2014 5:59 pm • linkreport

What level of SES diversity do you envision?

Here are some data to consider.

The only public high schools with FARM rates less than 40% are Wilson, Washington Latin, School Without Walls, and Ellington.
The same schools are the only schools with FARM rates less than 50%.
(These high schools have 650 white students.)

At 60% or below FARM cut-off
Add Banneker, McKinley Tech, and Washington Mathematics Science Tech PCHS.
(These high schools have 11 white students.)

At 70% - No change

At 80% cut-off:
Add Capital City PCS - High School, Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering HS, KIPP DC - College Prep, and Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS.
(Cap City HS has 6 white students, the others have zero.)
Free and Reduced Lunch eligibility rates (sorry about the formatting):

FARM Rates DC and surrounding jurisdictions (from Kid's Count web site)

District of Columbia (2011-2012 data)
All public schools Percent 72%
DCPS Percent 69%
Public Charter Percent 77%

VA (2013)
Falls Church Number 155 Percent 6.9%
Fairfax County Number 47,874 Percent 26.7%
Arlington Number 7,138 Percent 31.3%
Alexandria Number 7,394 Percent 56.8%

MD (2013)
Howard Number 9,876 Percent 19%
Anne Arundel Number 24,619 Percent 32%
Montgomery Number 51,551 Percent 35%
Prince George's Number 76,719 Percent 62%

by Data on Mar 20, 2014 11:58 am • linkreport

I meant to post the FARM rates for some of the schools.

% free and reduced lunch
Wilson 37%
Washington Latin (Upper School) 39%
Duke Ellington 36%

Comparing individual schools vs county averages isn't an apples to apples comparison.

by Data on Mar 20, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

The data does suggest it will be more important to the future of a majority of DC children to improve schools with overwhelmingly majority-poor enrollments than to figure out how to design a few schools to attract and maintain a critical-mass of middle-class families. In this case, the great debate seems to be where we should invest our resources, in charter or traditional schools, or some kind of cooperative hybrid system (by which I mean one sensitive to the fact that even our most successful charter schools cater to a subset of the population, and may have negative impacts on traditional neighborhood schools). Perhaps the great debate should be over how to reduce poverty and provide more effective social services, but that's a national policy debate that a city mayor can only tinker with on the margins.

What the data you present does not tell us, and which would interest me enormously, is the distribution of FARM rates by ward, and what demographers suggest these rates might look like in 5, 10, 20 years. Our policy-makers seems to be inspired by quick-strike interventions rather than long-term planning, and that scares me.

by Aaron on Mar 20, 2014 3:05 pm • linkreport


Almost maryland nails the the problem description! Read it and take it to heart.

A city that cannot provide for the middle class educational needs will not have a middle class.

Here is the data for FARM enrollment by Ward across all grades. This is the ward of the school which can be different from the ward where the student lives.

Ward Enrollment FARM Enrollment
1 83.90% 10681 8961
2 46.11% 3164 1459
3 22.24% 6478 1441
4 78.35% 11349 8892
5 83.96% 10466 8787
6 77.41% 9805 7590
7 94.71% 11212 10619
8 94.93% 12869 12217

by Data on Mar 22, 2014 11:29 am • linkreport

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