Fixing schools by mixing them

Q and A

Q&A//David Rusk


Unlike a lot of urban experts, David Rusk has been on the front lines - he was mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., from 1977 to 1981.

Now a consultant based in Washington, Rusk has spent a lot of his time looking at Baltimore. His 1996 book Baltimore Unbound: A Strategy for Regional Renewal decried what he called the "inelastic" nature of the city's archaic boundaries, arguing that it is necessary for the entire region to share the burdens dumped onto the urban core.

He sees a repetition of these problems behind the current controversy over city schools. Although a state takeover of some city schools could be seen as a move toward a regional solution, Rusk does not believe there will be any real progress in Baltimore's education statistics until something is done about the concentration of students who live below the poverty line.

"Housing policy is education policy" is his summation of the issue.

Do you find any hope in the proposed takeover of some failing Baltimore schools by the state, the prospect of renewed attention bringing a better education to these city youngsters?

It was in 1997, I think, that Education Week, the weekly journal of the profession, sent out one of its investigative reporters, charged with finding an urban education district that was succeeding. He came back after two months and wrote that, unfortunately, there are none.

I would say that any school district with roughly 60 percent of more lower-income kids - measured by eligibility for free school lunches - is not going to do well. I'm not blaming the kids for that. A whole lot of things flow into it, beginning with inadequate prenatal care. You have home environments that are not sufficiently stimulating for little children's minds. And as kids get older, there are all sorts of adverse neighborhood influences, tensions and stresses and privations in the household.

There's the phenomenon of students' families constantly moving around. I'll bet in many Baltimore city elementary schools half the kids a teacher starts the year with are gone by the end of the year, replaced by another group of kids, sometimes a couple of times over. It's this churning that goes on with folks who have to live on the edge.

If you took the superintendents and all the faculty members of the Baltimore city school system and the Howard County school system and swapped them, it is quite possible that the Howard County folks would do worse in Baltimore City than the folks you've got there now. And vice versa.

One analysis I did measured where the schools ought to be, given the nature of their students. Some of the highest-performing schools by that standard were city schools, and some of the lowest-performing were in places like Howard County and Anne Arundel County and other suburban systems where you expect the kids to perform way up there.

This is nothing new. These findings were discovered by James Coleman in 1966 in a massive report on the equality of educational opportunity for the U.S. Office of Education that looked in detail at [tens of thousands] of public school systems. The overwhelming predictor of success was the socioeconomic status of the student's family, followed closely by the socioeconomic status of their classmates. Nothing else even came close.

So it does not matter how old or new the building is, what the teacher-pupil ratio is, how much money is spent per pupil; it is all overwhelmed by the issue of who these kids are.

What is the situation in Baltimore?

There has been a multi-decade sorting going on, that obviously has heavy racial overtones to it, basically of middle-class families moving out of Baltimore. Many of the middle-class families that remain - black and white - don't have their kids in city schools. The last time I looked in Baltimore, it had edged upward to about 84 percent poor kids in city schools.

And how does that affect education outcomes?

I looked at this when I did a study for the Abell Foundation in 1997 and again six years later, and the results were exactly the same. Who the kids are, measured as the percentage of students qualifying for federally subsidized lunches, had a .81 correlation with variations in school-by-school test scores. A 1.00 would be a perfect match, so this correlation is very high, really an absolute bull's-eye figure.

Is there anything that can be done?

The Baltimore situation is classic in cities like that. But if you look, on the other hand, at what I call an elastic city, that keeps expanding its boundaries, a place like Charlotte, N.C., where there is a unified system that takes in the surrounding suburban counties, you have a very different picture.

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