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The Importance of Place in Education

PlaceMatters

This blog post is part of a series called Place Matters. The other posts can be accessed here, here, here and here.

North Carolina’s education system is entering a new environment. The Common Core State Standards are in full effect providing for new curriculum. The Excellent Public Schools Act’s Read to Achieve section which ends social promotion in the third grade threatens to hold back many students. Proven measures like early childhood education programs that improve End of Grade test results have been cut.

Unfortunately, students who find themselves in environments of racial segregation and high poverty will feel the effects of the changes in education policy in this state worse than their more affluent peers. According to a 2013 report published by the UNC Center for Civil Rights called “The State of Exclusion”, North Carolina is rife with racially identifiable schools. In the report, these are schools where “the racial composition of the school was more than 10% different than the county average.” Their composition can reflect either a higher population of white students than the county average or more students of color than the county average. Using the methodology explained in the report, the research found that throughout the entire state, 63.44% of the population lives near an elementary school that is racially identifiable.

The literature is clear on the impacts of racially identifiable schools on students learning. In a research brief, UNC Charlotte Professor Roslyn Michelson, states that “[s]egregated schools are highly effective delivery systems for unequal educational opportunities.” This point is illustrated by research from the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities which states that “[i]n North Carolina, segregated high-poverty schools have less experienced teachers, fewer fully-qualified teachers, and fewer teachers with advanced degrees…” Racial segregation in schools creates a system for student underachievement.

Racial segregation was not the only consideration in the UNC report. Research also addressed high-poverty schools. It comes as no surprise that, according to the report, high-poverty schools are also likely to be racially identifiable. The most impoverished counties in North Carolina also have higher rates of their populations living near failing schools.

These findings are highly correlated with other findings of the report around segregated housing patterns. Again, Michelson finds that assignment policies for schools necessarily are linked to housing policies.

Fortunately, there are solutions. Research shows that racial and socioeconomic integration is beneficial to all students and society.  Prof. Michelson’s research brief shows that where there is diversity, students of color are more likely to have higher grades, graduate high school and continue their education in college than students attending schools with a population of mostly disadvantaged students of color and students living in poverty.

A Century Foundation report called “Housing Policy is School Policy” studied Montgomery County, Maryland, which has one of the first inclusionary zoning programs in the United States. The policy allows low-income students to attend school with their more affluent peers. Low-income students with access to schools where there are students with more wealth outperformed poor students in the schools where there was not socioeconomic integration.

In places like Wake County, where housing is segregated but an “aggressive district-wide socioeconomic integration policies” has been used, there was less of an achievement gap than there would have been without the integration policy.

Of course, there are many places in the state where there is no racial or socioeconomic diversity. If inclusionary zoning or strong diversity policies are not available, there are still other solutions. The state can ensure that qualified, experienced teachers are in every classroom by making and paying teachers like the professionals they are. North Carolina could also restore the Teaching Fellows Program so that only people who know that they want to teach will enter the profession. There should also be restoration of funding for professional development programs. A joint publication between the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project and Budget and Tax Center called “Smart Money: Investing in Student Achievement” highlight solutions where adequate and equitable funding can improve student outcomes.

Until North Carolina becomes serious about ensuring that students’ learning environments are not tied to their living environments, place will always matter.

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