Moving to Disillusionment

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Moving to Disillusionment


THE SOURCES: "Improved Neighborhoods Don't Raise Academic Achievement" by Lisa Sanbonmatsu, Jeffrey Kling, Greg Duncan, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, as summarized in NBER Digest, Sept. 2006; "Blacks at Racially Integrated High Schools Operated by the U.S. Army Produce SAT Scores Superior to Blacks at U.S. Public Schools" in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Summer 2006.

NO MORE PERPLEXING QUESTION has beset social science and politics in the past half-century than the educational gap between African Americans and whites. From Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, every decade has brought new theories and strategies, but a persistent theme has been that better neighborhoods would produce better students. Testing the hypothesis has taken decades, and some important and sobering results are now in.

In 1962, Chicago capped a public-housing construction boom by erecting 28 towers that stood like 16-story toast slices near the shore of Lake Michigan. The huge bloc of 4,300 apartments, all inhabited by the poor, became a slum almost instantly. Activists in the War on Poverty era sued the government on behalf of resident Dorothy Gautreaux, contending that housing officials were discriminating against African Americans by concentrating them in ghettos and refusing to build public housing in white neighborhoods. In a landmark 1976 ruling, the Supreme Court held that public-housing authorities can be ordered to place units not only in white areas but in white suburbs beyond city limits in order to relieve racial segregation. Chicago responded by helping 7,000 poor, mostly African-American families move to 100 suburban communities in the metropolitan area.

Initial studies promised important results. Not only had the tenants moved into more affluent and less crime-ridden neighborhoods, but their children were more satisfied with their teachers, had better attitudes about school, and were only a quarter as likely to drop out of high school before graduation as were children remaining in the segregated schools of the city. The only problem was the data: The sample sizes were small, and the movers were not randomly chosen to represent public-housing residents.

Nearly 20 years later, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a huge, expensive, randomly assigned, scientifically evaluated, long-term test of a new "Moving to Opportunity" program. Nearly 5,000 poor children in Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York were divided into three groups, according to Lisa Sanbonmatsu, Jeffrey Kling, Greg Duncan, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Princeton University, Northwestern University, and Columbia University, respectively. An "experimental" group got vouchers and assistance in moving to more affluent neighborhoods. A "treatment" group got housing vouchers to move to any private apartment or home--but no help in moving into a neighborhood with less poverty--and the control group stayed in public housing.

Four years later, the researchers began checking the "experimental" children to see if their academic performance or behavior had improved compared with children left behind in the projects and nearby areas.

"The results of this very large-scale experiment indicate no evidence of improvement in reading scores, math scores, behavior problems, or school engagement overall," the researchers report. …

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