Place Matters: So Do Schools and Teachers

Recently, a study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren riveted the political and policy world on one of the country’s most pressing problems—the long-term toll on mobility of growing up in a poor neighborhood.

Chetty and Hendren analyzed neighborhoods’ effects on children’s earnings and other outcomes in adulthood by studying more than 5 million families who moved across counties in the U.S. The research is complex, but the authors’ conclusions are straightforward:

Low-income children are most likely to succeed in counties that have less concentrated poverty, less income inequality, better schools, a larger share of two-parent families, and lower crime rates.

What made these finding so newsworthy? Prior research on a 1994 experimental housing voucher program, Moving to Opportunity, which provided funds to help poor families move out of areas of concentrated poverty, failed to show significant increases in adult income over families that did not move.

The new analysis, however, shows that relocating to a better neighborhood can have lifelong positive effects—especially if the move is made in early childhood, before age 10. The Chetty and Hendren analysis, coupled with an earlier reassessment of Moving to Opportunity by Chetty, Hendren and Lawrence Katz, shows conclusively that place matters.

And it matters a lot.

I was in Detroit when the news of the Chetty and Hendren study broke in the New York Times. My AIR colleague Victoria Rankin and I are conducting research on the academic and non-academic cultures of high-performing high schools in low-income neighborhoods. Detroit is in Wayne County, which ranks 112th out of 2,478 U.S. counties on poverty measures. Only 5 percent of all U.S. counties are poorer.

Growing up in Detroit’s poor neighborhoods is challenging at best. Abandoned and burned out buildings line the streets, stores are shuttered, and the unemployment rate (at 24.8 percent) is the country’s highest. According to the latest (2013) FBI violent crime statistics, Detroit is the most dangerous city in the U.S. Nearly 60 percent of children in Detroit are poor.

But there are beacons of hope. Imagination, determination, and a sense of empowerment don’t have to bow to poverty. The engine for an economic and social renaissance in Detroit is its schools. A family with a good school nearby doesn’t have to move out of Detroit to have a bright future.

Spending time in the schools such as the Cesar Chavez Academy High School in one of Detroit’s most impoverished neighborhoods makes it clear that where there is vision, commitment, and support, things can change for the better fast.

Founded in 1995, Cesar Chavez Academy High School is among the most highly ranked high schools in Michigan and a top-performing city high school (based on ACT and Michigan Merit Exam test scores for the past six years). The school has an 85 percent graduation rate.

Place matters but so do schools and teachers.

In a 2014 study of teaching and long-term student outcomes by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff, the authors found that students assigned to high-performing teachers are more likely to go to college and earn more, and less likely to be teenage parents. On average, having such a teacher for one year raises a child’s cumulative income by $80,000.

The United States isn’t likely to adopt a massive residential relocation program anytime soon. Since more than 50 percent of American public school children live below the poverty line, it would take a social mega-revolution to transfer millions of poor families to middle class neighborhoods. A two-option approach might work:

For those who wish to relocate, a robust program of housing vouchers or income supplements.

For those who can’t or don’t want to relocate, rebuilt neighborhoods where children can grow safely and attend schools that are second to none.

The cornerstone of this policy is a new concept of school, not as a fortress and wall of hopelessness but as an embracing and positive community center and bridge to the future. Cesar Chavez Academy High School and the Harlem Children’s Zone in Manhattan already show how to do it. Now we need design principles to bring reform and revitalization to scale.

Revitalizing schools and communities begins with recruiting, preparing, and supporting high-performing teachers, because we know that no school is better than its teachers. Every poor family can’t move to a more affluent county, but we can work to create schools that are communities where children can develop their talents in an atmosphere of safety, intellectual striving, and celebrated diversity.