A couple of days ago I did a post about government’s role in shaping the suburbs through federal lending policies, including an excerpt from the excellent book, Cities Without Suburbs, by David Rusk. Today I bring you more from Rusk, this time on education:
In 1966, sociologist James Coleman released his path-breaking study, Equality of Educational Opportunity. Sponsored by the then-U.S. Office of Education, the Coleman Report concluded that the socioeconomic characteristics of a child and of the childâ€™s classmates (measured principally by family income and parental education) were the overwhelming factors that accounted for academic success. Nothing else â€“ expenditures per pupil, pupil-teacher ratios, teacher experience, instructional materials, age of school buildings, etc. â€“ came close.
â€œThe educational resources provided by a childâ€™s fellow students,â€ Coleman summarized, â€œare more important for his achievement than are the resources provided by the school board.â€ So important are fellow students, the report found, that â€œthe social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the studentâ€™s own social background, than is any school factor.â€
In the four decades since, nothing has changed. There has been no more consistent finding of educational researchers â€“ and no research finding more consistently ignored by most politicians and many educators. They will not challenge the underlying racial and class structure of American society.
I have conducted a dozen such studies myself, charting the dominant impact of socioeconomic status on school results. The most recent is my study of all elementary schools in Madison-Dane County, Wisconsin. The study finds that
- Pupil socioeconomic status accounts for 64 percent to 77 percent of the school-by-school variation in standardized test results and that
- Poor childrenâ€™s test results improve dramatically when surrounded by middle-class classmates. Move a poor child from a neighborhood school where 80 percent of classmates are also poor to a neighborhood school where 80 percent of classmates are middle class would raise the chance of that childâ€™s scoring at a proficient or advanced levels by 30 to 48 percentage points â€“ an enormous improvement.
In other words, where a child lives largely shapes the childâ€™s educational opportunities â€“ not in terms of how much money is being spent per pupil but who the childâ€™s classmates are. Housing policy is school policy.
This is not really earth shattering news but among all the discussions about the St. Louis Public Schools — the performance of the long list of recent Superintendents, divisions on the school board, low test scores, and calls by Mayor Fracis Slay and others for state takeover of the system the idea of the home-life envinronment for the bulk of the school kids has been lost. This is not to say the kids have a bad or abusive home life but one in which perhaps their parents are poorly educated themselves and are working many hours to provide for their family.
The basic argument is this — the St. Louis Public Schools will continue to under-perform regardless of who is in charge as long as the social issues of concentrated poverty, lack of nearby jobs and poor housing remain unchanged. Ballpark Village is not going to change this situation in the neighborhoods. In the past I’ve said something to the effect of we don’t need school age kids — they are a financial drain anyway. Well, I was wrong. We do need kids — lots of middle-class kids.
But how is that possible? Parents are not going to move to the city until the schools improve and the schools are not going to improve until we get more kids. A costly busing system is one avenue but I don’t think that is a good long-term solution. The answer? Consolidation! No, not a city-county merger of municipalities but of school districts.
Between the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County we have 25 school districts. In many less fractured regions of the country, that same area would have 1-3 districts. Of course, large districts can have their issues as well but that is more about leadership. So what to do? Well, I’d probably combine all the small districts that are fully within the I-270 loop (see map of districts) — this includes St. Louis, Riverview Gardens, Jennings, Normandy, Ritenour, University City, Clayton, Ladue, Brentwood, Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Webster Groves, Affton, Bayless, and Hancock Place. A number of districts are mostly within the I-270 loop and could be included as well — Ferguson-Florissant, Pattonville, Kirkwood, Lindbergh and perhaps Mehlville.
Could this happen voluntarily? Probably not, state action would be needed. But, I would argue this is necessary to help the region — the St. Louis Public Schools are acting as a drain on the regions growth but the solution, more middle-class students, is outside the grasp of the St. Louis School Board and the administration. And yes, as long as poor folks are concentrated in the city and older inner-ring suburbs like Wellston we will need some busing to move people around. But as a single district this would be easier to accomplish — less of the “us” vs. “them.”
Another factor is if we had a single school district for the city and most of the county we could eliminate the “I won’t live in the city because of the schools” claims. Of course, some might argue this would drive folks to Illinois, St. Charles County or Jefferson County even faster but I’m not so sure. After the initial shock of it all I think it might go pretty well and then parents would not see the city limits sign as a big barrier. A strong city is good for the region and especially good for St. Louis County, which continues to lose population to surrounding areas. Such a school system consolidation could help both the city and county. Discuss.