This article was originally published in the Raleigh News and Observer on September 28, 2007.
Misplaced confidence. That’s the best way to describe the Wake County school system’s support for economic diversity. Administrators use it as the template to help assign students across the district to ensure racial diversity. They also credit the plan for dramatically boosting Black and Hispanic test scores over the past five years. But is it really the cause of such success? Where’s the proof?
Supporters of economic diversity in the schools are fond of citing NAEP test scores and studies done by the Century Foundation that show low income students increased twenty points after transferring to middle and high income schools. While the suggestion seems plausible, it is not really a valid argument for economic diversity because the test scores and Century Foundation studies fail to account for the entire impact of economic diversity (i.e. busing, community divisions, student transfers, transfers on student performance, costs associated with high concentrations of low income students, etc.). These are the factors that have forced many communities across the country to abandon efforts to achieve economic diversity in the schools.
Good research methodology will account or control for other factors or conditions that influence outcomes. The research proponents consistently site in support of the diversity plan fails to account for other significant factors. The reality is, several factors likely helped to influence achievement scores among minorities. Local demographics are critical to the success of any diversity plan. In this case, a number of factors helped to facilitate the process. First, during the time Black and Hispanic test scores jumped, Wake County was one of only six counties in North Carolina that had a family poverty rate of less than 10 percent. Much of that population was nonwhite. Second, the Wake County School District boundaries are county wide. Hence, it is far easier for Wake than other similar jurisdictions to reassign students from the city to the suburbs. The strength of the local economy is another factor that can facilitate this process. From 2002 to 2006, expenditures for Wake County schools increased from $742 million to $964 million. Included in all of these initiatives were other at-risk programs and programs designed to boost student performance. How do we account for the impacts of these other programs? Finally, IRS data for 2000 to 2005 suggests that foreign – most likely, Hispanic – migrants had a significant impact on the county’s falling average median household income – which is to say that a disproportionate number of the county’s 29,000 low income students are from foreign-born households. Failing to account for any of these factors makes the assumed link between economic diversity and student achievement questionable at best.
Boosting student achievement among low income, low-performing students is an important challenge facing Wake County public schools. The tenuous link between economic diversity and student achievement, however, should encourage the school board to consider options other than warmed over economic determinism.