Do neighborhood conditions affect school performance? (The University of Chicago Urban Network)

March 1, 2012

A recent report issued by the Center on Education Policy predicted that 48 percent of US public school students would not meet reading and math standards by 2014, as legally mandated by the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law was originally established to address the comparatively low test scores of low-income students. With the limited success of NCLB, the discussion about school performance has again grabbed the headlines.  While social scientists have always been interested in the dynamics behind the low achievement of students living in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, in recent years researchers have been trying to establish precisely the extent to which neighborhood conditions, net of other factors, influence educational achievement.

Better neighborhoods, higher test scores

Social scientists Jens LudwigHelen Ladd, and Greg Duncan used data from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment to investigate the impact of neighborhood environment on educational outcomes. The MTO experiment was conducted in five cities: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Families who volunteered were randomly assigned to different treatment groups. Whereas the experimental group received counseling and vouchers to move into low-poverty neighborhoods, the second group simply received regular Section 8 subsidies without being encouraged to move out of high-poverty areas. A third group functioned as a control group and received no subsidies at all. Using data from the Baltimore site, Ludwig, Ladd, and Duncan found that elementary school students in the experimental group who had moved to better neighborhoods scored about one-quarter of a standard deviation higher in reading and math tests than children in the control group. Robert SampsonPatrick Sharkey, and Stephen Raudenbush foundsimilar results when they investigated the impact of neighborhood disadvantage on the verbal ability of African American children.  Based on intelligence tests administered within the framework of the Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods project, they found that children who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods on average score four points lower than children living in better-off areas—a result that is almost equal to missing a year of schooling.

Better neighborhoods, no improvement?

A more recent analysis of MTO data from all five cities generated very different results. Social scientists Lisa SanbonmatsuJeffrey KlingGreg Duncan, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunnfound that math as well as reading scores did not significantly improve for children aged between six and twenty. The children were assessed four to six years after they had moved to a low-poverty neighborhood. Sanbonmatsu and her colleagues also revisited the children in the Ludwig Baltimore sample and found that the Baltimore elementary school children did not sustain their educational gains. In the final results of the MTO experiment, published in October 2011, Sanbonmatsu and her colleagues confirmed that there are few significant improvements in test scores ten to fifteen years after children had moved to less disadvantaged neighborhoods. There was no significant difference in achievement between those children who stayed in high-poverty areas and those who had moved away. The researchers suggested that the results may be related to the segregated, low-quality schools the children continued to attend even though they had moved to low-poverty areas.

In a review of neighborhood-effects studies and a reanalysis of the MTO data, sociologistJulia Burdick-Will and her colleagues challenged this null finding. They argued that the results of MTO, the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, and other studies showed that neighborhood effects may work in nonlinear ways. The size of the effect visible may be contingent on other factors, such as exposure to violence or the relative disadvantage of the neighborhood the child lives in. Children who come from very disadvantaged neighborhoods may experience larger neighborhood effects than those living in moderately disadvantaged areas. Consequently, the size of the neighborhood effect depends on the city. In high-poverty areas of Chicago and Baltimore, the MTO data showed an improvement in test scores. In Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, where neighborhoods are comparatively less disadvantaged, the researchers did not find clear test-score improvements.

Cultural factors

Sociologist David Harding argued that neighborhood effects mainly work through cultural pathways. Children living in disadvantaged neighborhoods are exposed to a greater variety of educational choices than their peers in other areas. He suggested that living in a culturally heterogeneous neighborhood has a negative impact on educational achievement. Using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescence (AddHealth), he showed that inner-city children observe educational behavior ranging from dropping out of high school to graduating from college. This greater variety of educational models seems to be affecting children’s own educational aspirations, by forcing them to decide among too many competing alternatives. Analyzing the same data set in another recent article, Harding also found that high levels of neighborhood violence may have a detrimental effect on high school graduation rates. He found that living in neighborhoods with high rates of violence was associated with significantly lower chances of high school graduation, regardless of family structure, income, and language spoken in the household.

Multigenerational effects

Sharkey and sociologist Felix Elwert have recently argued that neighborhood poverty has a cumulative effect across generations. Relying on data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), they showed that children who were raised in poor neighborhoods by parents who had grown up in similarly disadvantaged communities had cognitive ability scores more than half a standard deviation below their peers. The children scored on average 9.27 points lower on the reading test and 8.36 points lower on the problem-solving test than children who were raised in non-poor neighborhoods by parents who had grown up in similarly non-poor areas. Though the authors demonstrated the presence of multigenerational effects through advanced statistical models, they explained that disentangling the precise interactions underlying the complex web of mechanisms at work over generations was impossible.

While researchers try to disentangle the impact of neighborhoods and generational effects on schooling, policy makers are beginning to consider alternatives to NCLB. In September of 2011, President Obama announced that states may now opt out of the program under certain conditions. With schools failing to meet the test score standards of NCLB, the government is rethinking its approach to helping the most disadvantaged students.