/ tiero

learning curves

For a long time, sociologists and policymakers have assumed that the fact kids in some neighborhoods do better in school than others can be boiled down to the quality of the schools in those neighborhoods. In this narrative, kids at elite, hard-to-get-into schools located in leafy suburbs outperform their peers in underfunded, concrete-clad inner-city institutions. But a new study in the American Journal of Sociology finds little evidence supporting this notion.

In their study, Geoffrey T. Wodtke and colleagues utilize data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and supplement it with a comprehensive range of measures designed to evaluate school quality. These measures encompass different aspects of school effectiveness, resources, and climate. For example, by the measure of “school resources,” a high-quality elementary school is one that receives ample funding, has small class sizes, and employs “the most qualified and experienced teachers.” The findings suggest that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood, as measured by the socioeconomic composition of a student’s home census tract, reduces academic achievement, but not because the neighborhood influences school quality. In fact, differences in elementary school quality do not seem to play a significant mediating role. Moreover, school quality does not appear to interact with neighborhood context, as the effects of attending higher or lower quality elementary schools are similar regardless of whether children reside in advantaged or disadvantaged neighborhoods. Taken together, the findings suggest that neighborhood effects on academic achievement are most likely explained by other factors that are not directly linked to the quality, or the composition, of elementary schools.

The authors emphasize the need for careful examination when interpreting this counterintuitive finding, since even if elementary schools are not to blame for neighborhood-based disparities in academic achievement, they can still be part of the solution. For example, the authors find that elementary schools serving children from impoverished communities are, on average, educating their first-grade students as effectively as schools in more advantaged communities. According to the paper, policies that prioritize reinvestment in schools located in underprivileged neighborhoods, rather than extensive restructuring or closure, may prove effective in enhancing educational outcomes in those areas.