School matters (and so does school spending)

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann | July 16, 2010

The Harlem Children’s Zone is an organization bent on addressing all the problems of poor families in its Manhattan catchment area.  The project involves many government and nonprofit programs and services that aim to improve the environment for disadvantaged kids outside of school. Established in 1997, it also includes a network of charter schools called, collectively, Promise Academy.

Doctoral candidate Will Dobbie and economist Roland G. Fryer Jr., both of Harvard, recently published a careful study of the Zone’s  impact on student achievement. They’ve shown that high quality schools—with or without community investments in health, parenting, and early childhood program—boost student achievement, while community investments without high quality schooling have little effect.

They’ve shown, to oversimplify, that schools matter.

One is tempted to say: Of course they do! Then again, ever since James Coleman’s 1966 study, Equality of Educational Opportunity, which convinced people that family effects dwarfed anything schools could do to promote equality, the importance of schooling is always worth demonstrating.

Interestingly, though this was not their primary focus, Dobbie and Fryer have also shown that money (doubtless well spent) is also vital in creating high quality schools. The successful HCZ schools Dobbie and Fryer studied spent $19,272 per student, while the median school district in New York State spent $16,171 and those at the 95th percentile of achievement spent $33,521. The HCZ schools (like some other successful charter schools in New York City) were able to offer longer school days, after-school programs, and additional “wrap-around” programs.

While one must applaud Dobbie and Fryer’s work, I am not convinced that demonstrating the importance of high quality schooling in closing the race achievement gap will have much effect on policy. First the public needs to be convinced that the racial achievement gap really matters to each of us (whether we are white, black, or brown). Racial inequality is undemocratic and unjust, but is it also economically costly to all of us and not just to those whose life chances are diminished. What does the U.S. lose in overall productivity (or other measures of collective economic well-being) as a result of unequal educational outcomes? Those questions will have to be answered, I believe, before the public will invest what’s required to make high-quality schools available for all Americans

Philosophic arguments about the importance of democratic ideals like equality and justice seem to hold less appeal today than economic arguments having to do with the bottom line for taxpayers. Dobbie and Fryer are among the most imaginative economists currently studying questions related to the race achievement gap. I hope they move on from careful and important evaluation work to some of the larger, more difficult underlying issues.

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