Improving Urban Schools Through Access

By: Lucas Westmass  

Among the proposals thrown out by Mitt Romney at the first Presidential debate was an interesting take on school choice that would allow students to cross city and county lines in search of better public schools, taking their federal funding with them.

It’s hard to see a proposal like this flying in suburban districts, but as a former teacher I can see a politically palatable solution lurking just behind it: ending ability segregation in urban schools.

Many urban school districts around the country maintain a tiered system of magnet and neighborhood schools that separates high-achieving students from those playing catch-up.  If your scores are high, you get sent to a magnet school, no matter where you live.  If not, you’re going to the school down the street.

The system is meant to provide an advanced education to kids at the top, but in the process it severely damages the prospects of kids at the bottom.

Kids need great teachers to succeed, but they learn just as much if not more from the students around them – everything from material to study techniques to work habits.  High-achieving students take more active roles in a school’s extracurricular life, improving the quality of programs outside the classroom.  They encourage schools to offer more advanced courses, which neighborhood schools often lack.  Their very presence forces teachers to set expectations higher, and all students benefit as a result.

Studies have shown that separating kids based on previous academic achievement has a serious affect on the academic future of kids on the bubble of success.  A study in Trinidad and Tobago, where test scores are strictly enforced as a barrier to entry in some schools, compared students who just missed the cutoff score to students who squeaked in.

The result?  Even though their scores were virtually identical, students who barely qualified for advanced schools fared significantly better than the students just below the threshold.

The evidence is clear: When you take away student role models, lower-performing students fall further behind.

This fact is often glossed over in the ritual wringing of hands over failing public schools.  We should not be surprised that it’s more challenging to teach in a classroom where every student needs special assistance.  We should certainly not be shocked when schools that we’ve filled with high-need students don’t meet testing standards.

How can we end ability segregation?  One way is to restructure enrollment, starting with ending admissions requirements.  Any student could attend any school, which would allow schools to specialize in subjects or skills and allow students to leave schools that did not suit their needs.  Open enrollment poses a challenge for policy designers, but it is one that can be overcome.

It is true that pursuing this course of action would reduce the number of remarkable schools, the institutions that are head-and-shoulders above the others.  However, it would not be reduce the number of remarkable students – it would simply spread them out.

High-level students will still have the opportunity to pursue high-level coursework within their schools – but so will all other students.  They’ll push each other and their peers, making everyone better off.  They’ll lead extra-curricular clubs, opening up participation opportunities that don’t currently exist in many neighborhood schools.

The plan has the added benefit of ending the system of perverse incentives that discourages lower-performing students from maintaining high levels of effort.  As it stands, if a student matriculates into an underperforming high school, their chances of success are severely hampered no matter what they do in their four high school years.  That means students in neighborhood schools have less incentive to strive for success.

Moving academic judgment day to the end of high school gives students four extra years to find their scholastic selves.  And that can be crucial.  Every high school teacher has seen “bad” students reinvent themselves over the course of their four years – I’ve seen students grow two entire letter grades between their first and fourth-quarter report cards.

Ability-segregated schools are built on the myth that kids are on a set intellectual path by the time they’re 14 years old.  Transformations like this give the lie to that outdated idea.

You want to improve urban schools? Open them to everybody.

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The Waiting Game