Neighborhoods’ Effect On Grades Challenged

Jay Mathews, Washington Post, August 14, 2007

Many social reformers have long said that low academic achievement among inner-city children cannot be improved significantly without moving their families to better neighborhoods, but new reports released today that draw on a unique set of data throw cold water on that theory.

Researchers examining what happened to 4,248 families that were randomly given or denied federal housing vouchers to move out of their high-poverty neighborhoods found no significant difference about seven years later between the achievement of children who moved to more middle-class neighborhoods and those who didn’t.

Although some children had more stable lives and better academic results after the moves, the researchers said, on average there was no improvement. Boys and brighter students appeared to have more behavioral problems in their new schools, the studies found.

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Experts often debate the factors in student achievement. Many point to teacher quality, others to parental involvement and others to economic and cultural issues.

Some critics, and the researchers themselves, suggest that the new neighborhoods may not have been good enough to make a difference. Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity program, one group of families received vouchers that could be used only to move to neighborhoods with poverty rates below 10 percent, one group got vouchers without that restriction and one group did not receive vouchers. Families with the restricted vouchers moved to neighborhoods with poverty rates averaging 12.6 percent lower than those of similar families that did not move, but not the most affluent suburbs with the highest-performing schools.

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The authors of one of the new reports were Lisa Sanbonmatsu, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research; Jeffrey Kling, a Brookings Institution economist; Greg J. Duncan, an education and social policy professor at Northwestern University; and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a child development and education professor at Columbia University.

They cite several possible explanations why students’ performance did not improve when their families moved to less poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York areas. Some families returned to poorer neighborhoods after sampling a more middle-class environment. “For many families who remained in their new tracts, the poverty rate in their neighborhood increased around them,” the researchers said.

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