Your Schools

How Detroit schools ‘beat’ CMS – and why that’s not so bad

Detroit’s problem-plagued public schools have less of a racial gap in test scores than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – because all groups in Detroit score low.
Detroit’s problem-plagued public schools have less of a racial gap in test scores than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – because all groups in Detroit score low. AP

When Stanford University’s Sean Reardon presented new data on race, class and academic achievement at an Education Writers Association conference last week, I wasn’t the only reporter whose eyes were fixed on a big dot in his scatter plot.

The size and placement hinted that one large school district had broken the pattern that plagues most of America, where black and Hispanic students trail their white counterparts.

But when a reporter asked the identity of the successful district, we realized we had been set up.

It was Detroit – arguably the country’s most dysfunctional school system.

We guessed the punch line before Reardon spelled it out: The gap doesn’t exist because the few white students who remain in Detroit city schools perform as poorly as their black and Hispanic classmates.

Racial gaps are much bigger in districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County, where black and Hispanic students do much better than Detroit’s, but white students fare better still.

“We had sort of hoped our data would show us some success stories that we could learn from, but there really aren’t any,” said Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.

I went to the EWA’s national seminar on “The Quest for Quality and Equity” seeking context for covering Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. That was plentiful, including the data archive on schools and communities that Reardon and his colleagues had just posted, as well as a New York Times interactive graphic based on that report.

But like Reardon, I found no clear blueprints for success.

The Detroit example highlights an important point: The quest for equity isn’t really about balancing numbers, whether it’s demographics or test scores. No one wants an equally mediocre or segregated education for all.

The goal is providing all students their best shot at success, in school and in life.

Equity, not equality

Reardon led a session on using data to examine segregation, a huge issue locally as CMS grapples with student assignment and low-performing schools. Charlotte’s challenge reflects America’s struggles, right down to defining the terms.

Reardon noted that there are many ways to talk about school segregation. You can compare school demographics with housing patterns. That often shows that schools are less segregated than neighborhoods.

You can define segregation as uneven distribution of low-income and/or students of color within a district, or as lack of exposure to students of other races and socioeconomic classes. In the South, which tends to have countywide districts and a history of racial segregation, both types are prevalent, he said. And across the country, he said, black, Hispanic and impoverished students are growing more isolated from white and middle-class peers.

CMS fits that pattern: More than half the district’s black and Hispanic students now attend schools that are at least 90 percent nonwhite, with very high poverty levels. And 61 percent of white students attend majority-white schools, which tend to be more racially and economically diverse. (The district as a whole is 40 percent black, 29 percent white, 22 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.)

By any measure, segregation increases the achievement gap, Reardon said. Racial and economic isolation combined create a double whammy for disadvantaged kids.

The challenges of poverty are a big part of the problem, he said, but even when students have similar economic status, the race gap remains. And as the New York Times analysis notes, some of the largest gaps can be found in affluent communities, such as Chapel Hill.

It’s a pattern I’ve seen within CMS: At schools with the lowest poverty levels, black, Hispanic and low-income students do better than counterparts in high-poverty schools, but not as well as white classmates.

Reardon suggested that in schools and communities where education is a high priority and families have the means, out-of-school activities such as summer camps, tutoring and other enrichment may boost the most advantaged students to even higher levels.

Does moving kids help?

Of course, no one wants to “close the gap” by hobbling white students, who average more than two grade levels ahead of the national average in CMS and Wake, according to the new data. (Asian students log similar performances on state exams but aren’t part of the Stanford data.)

And we all know that correlation isn’t the same as cause. If low-income and minority students fare worst in high-poverty schools, we have to figure out whether that setting causes the problems, or whether those schools simply serve the most severely disadvantaged kids.

I asked Reardon the million-dollar question for CMS: Is there data that shows kids benefit from being moved to a more diverse school?

He cited Heather Schwartz’s study of housing, school assignment and achievement in Montgomery County, Md. That school system has a unique opportunity to see how otherwise similar students fare if randomly assigned to different types of schools.

That’s because the county’s zoning policy requires all developers to set aside a portion of each development for below-market rental or sales to low-income families, reports Schwartz, a researcher with the RAND Corp., a California-based public policy research company. Families who qualify for Section 8 housing vouchers are randomly assigned to neighborhoods – and by extension, their children are randomly assigned to neighborhood schools.

Schwartz found consistent long-term academic advantages to the children who landed in low-poverty neighborhood schools.

But there are major differences between Montgomery and Mecklenburg. Montgomery County, in suburban Washington, D.C., is one of the country’s most affluent communities. And while its school system has higher poverty than the community at large, it remains much lower than that of CMS, where roughly 58 percent of students are considered low-income.

It’s not just schools

And there’s this: Montgomery County’s housing voucher system means the students who did better not only went to low-poverty schools but lived in low-poverty neighborhoods.

In session after session, experts from various backgrounds and perspectives told the education writers the same thing: Disparities in schools are deeply entangled in the policies, history and economy of their communities.

There was lively discussion of whether and how school systems can counteract problems created by society, but no one argued that schools alone are the culprit – or the salvation.

That’s no surprise to anyone who’s paying attention in Charlotte. We’re struggling with broader questions about social mobility, economic opportunity and civic trust. For months now, Superintendent Ann Clark and the school board have called for elected officials, corporate executives and civic leaders to rally behind the student assignment review, making it part of a bigger strategy to brighten the region’s prospects.

The silence, as one advocate recently put it, has been deafening.

Learn more

New York Times’ “Money, Race and Success: How Your District Compares”:

Stanford Educational Data Archive:

Heather Schwartz study on housing and school policy: