If Neighborhood Schools Are Higher Quality, Where's the Evidence?


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One claim that has been made many times during the student assignment reform process is that if more students attend nearby schools, the schools will improve in quality. The thinking is that parents will get involved in their neighborhood schools and help them improve. Also, if students lived near their school it would be easier for them to attend after school programs. Finally, if a school serves neighborhood children, the thinking goes, the neighborhood will pressure the district to improve the school. Lawrence Harmon made these same points in a Globe column yesterday.

This argument has also been made by the Mayor and by some members of the EAC. One thing that has been missing every time I have heard this claim made is any evidence to support it. In her presentation to the EAC on October 10th of last year, Harvard education professor Meira Levinson stated that: "There is no research evidence that neighborhood schools are higher quality than non-neighborhood schools." Of course, I can't definitively prove that no such research exists, but we do have some compelling evidence here in Boston that this effect is not happening here.

In their report on student assignment, QUEST looked at school performance by percentage of students in the walk zone. I looked at only the schools with a third grade. I chose these schools for two reasons. One is that early learning centers that serve only very young students have no MCAS results so they were not given an MCAS tier by BPS. The other is that I didn't want to count single schools that are divided into two buildings (like the Kilmer) twice. Here is what I found. The chart below shows the number of schools in each tier with high percentages of children from the walk zone. Keep in mind that each tier contains approximately the same number of schools with Tier 1 having the best MCAS results and Tier 4 the worst.

% Walk zone# Tier 1#Tier 2# Tier 3# Tier 4Total
>= 75%312511
>= 66.6%624820

There's probably not enough data here to prove that having a higher percentage of students living near a school does or doesn't contribute to school quality. However, it's very clear that these schools are not seeing some huge benefit from having the vast majority of their students live nearby. 

So while allowing kids to go to school close to home certainly has advantages for families and for the city, let's not kid ourselves that it will somehow magically transform the quality of the city's worst schools.


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