does gentrification affect neighborhood schools?

The literature on the organizational environment of schools tends to focus on four areas: disciplinary climate; student body composition; academic organization; and organizational climate. Most reasonable people would agree that the four are highly interdependent. Now, we can argue until the cows come home which of these four areas exerts a stronger influence than the others on student outcomes within a given school. I would argue that student body composition not only exerts the strongest influence on student outcomes but that it does so because it directly affects the other three.

The sociological and education literatures have a long history of documenting the role that student body composition plays in the organization of schools and schooling and on student outcomes. Student body composition is generally code for racial, ethnic, and class background of the students. High minority concentration = bad student outcomes; high concentration of students who receive free lunch = bad student outcomes; high minority concentration + high concentration of students who receive free lunch = abysmal student outcomes. That’s fairly simple. But is it simply racial and economic segregation within the schools that determine these outcomes or is segregation merely a proxy for other factors? That is, is segregation within schools in and of itself the cause of poorer student outcomes?

Quite a few articles and books have documented the roles that White and middle-class flight have played in the decline of school quality and student outcomes in the inner city. What would we observe in these same schools if we examined the return of these groups to the inner city? In other words, what effect has gentrification had on the quality of the schools located in these gentrified spaces? How has it affected student outcomes at these schools?

The very few articles I’ve read on this posit that the response of gentrifiers with children is to keep their children out of these neighborhood schools, opting instead for private schools or figuring out ways to place them in public schools outside of their designated catchment area. The consequences in terms of social integration and the potential fragmentation of the existing social fabric of the neighborhood are, to be expected, negative. But what happens to the schools as a result? Do they remain the same? Do they benefit at all from the growing tax base in terms of resources? Do they benefit from the improvements in the built environment of the neighborhood? If there is no effect on the student body composition, is there an effect on any of the other three organizational aspects?

I also realize that not every case of gentrification reveals a pattern of social avoidance by the gentrifiers. Quiet as it’s kept, some inner city schools are actually quite good despite the fact that their student body consists can be described as having high concentrations of minority and low-income students. When middle and upper-middle class families move into these neighborhoods and place their children in neighborhood schools, what ensues? Do school quality and student outcomes improve due to the presence of these embodiments of human and social capital? Does everyone benefit or does competition for resources (i.e. space, access to gifted and talented programs, etc.) result in the displacement of the “neighborhood” kids from these programs and from the schools? And how does the change in student body composition affect the three other organizational aspects? This is all really interesting stuff if you think about all of the possible outcomes!

I think answers to these questions would really help us better understand the role of schools as both sites of social integration and social conflict. I also think studying a process like gentrification provides us with better insight into why student body composition exerts such a strong influence on the other organizational properties of schools, on overall measures of school quality, and on student outcomes. And it’s also my current project so I’m consumed by it!


Written by lhinkson

October 2, 2009 at 4:00 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Hi Leslie, This sounds like very interesting and timely research, I’m looking forward to read more. My colleague L’Heureux Lewis (see his webpage has been studying an “inverse” case which could make some suggestions about your research. Lewis has looked at the educational experiences of low and middle income African-Americans living in a “better” resourced school district. In part, he finds that white families are more likely to try to manipulate schools (often by threatening to withhold resources) to advantage their children and thus inadvertently curtail the educational opportunities for black students. In addition, school staff are likely to discourage the involvement of those parents who don’t conform to middle class standards.



    October 2, 2009 at 8:38 pm

  2. There’s a related article in the latest Journal of Labor Economics on this. From the abstract:

    Using rich panel data on the achievement of Texas students…The estimates strongly indicate that a higher percentage of black schoolmates reduces achievement for blacks, while it implies a much smaller and generally insignificant effect on whites. These results suggest that existing levels of segregation in Texas explain a small but meaningful portion of the racial achievement gap.



    October 2, 2009 at 9:24 pm

  3. Thorfinn touches on an important issue – does minority concentration have cultural effects? Ogbu famously argued that concentrated minorities developed an oppositional culture, but I’ve seen evidence that it’s comex. For example, an early draft of the fryer/torelli paper had a graph showing that it was only the highest acheiving kids who faced problem in high minority schools. Tyson’ work also shows some subtle effects.



    October 2, 2009 at 9:39 pm

  4. If the gentrifiers (read: white, upper/upper-middle class students) reentered public schools where they previously departed, the literature points out that they will most likely receive higher recommendations for upper-level placement and higher teacher expectations than their racial/ethnic minority peers (despite class position). Upper- and middle-class families are able to manipulate school structure for their children because they understand how to use or activate what cultural capital they have (see Lamont and Lareau 1988; Lareau and Horvat 1999ish). The additional research supports Katherine’s mention of Lewis’ research that white families can generally mainuplate the system to assist their children with achieving higher levels of academic success compared to their racial/ethnic minority peers.

    Throfinn and Fabio’s mention of the higher minority composition of the student body influencing black achievement hits on the famous Ogbu position. However, the decline in black achievement occurs mainly in lower-SES schools and the white achievement is typically not affected given the higher-SES background that they usually have compared to their racial/ethnic minority peers even when looking at school-level SES. Downey’s (and Ainsowrth-Darnell and Downey 1998) in-depth focus on the oppositional culture position typically finds that oppositional culture among black students does not hold-up to empirical research.



    October 2, 2009 at 11:36 pm

  5. kind of bouncing off of hillbilly’s comment, i wonder if there’s some analytical leverage in the TX/CA x% plans for admissions to state colleges. it seems like on the margin these create some incentive for strategic school gentrification, especially in TX where a) there’s good data and b) the policy applies to the flagship campuses



    October 3, 2009 at 1:26 am

  6. gabriel,
    That’s a really interesting idea. There are plenty of studies on that law, but none that I can find on the impact on high schools. I wonder if you might also find also negative outcomes from children entering or not leaving bad schools to take advantage of the cutoff.

    You also have the opposite movement–minorities attending suburban schools. A study on Texas (Kain and O’Brien) finds that minority suburbanization improves achievement, enough to eliminate 12-30 percent of the black-white achievement gap.



    October 3, 2009 at 2:49 am

  7. gabriel,

    That’s a great point! It reminds me of the Attewell article on “Winner Take All High Schools,” where he finds that going to a “star” public school diminishes your chances of getting into a top college or university relative to someone at a less competitive high school with your same profile. The argument is that when you are ranked by admissions officers you are first compared to your classmates at your school, which puts you at a disadvantage. The implications for this seem to be that if you want your child to get into a top school, it’s easier to do so if you place her in a less competitive school. So here we do have an argument for strategic school gentrification.



    October 5, 2009 at 2:57 pm

  8. Leslie,

    I went back through the Attewell piece to grab a thought or two. Attewell argues that the star high schools sacrifice more for those who are on top and disadvantages those on the bottom. So if we think to trends in the organization of schools (tracking, differentiated curricula, teacher evaluations and bias) and the schooling process, the star high schools are basically putting racial and ethnic minority students at an even more disadvantage as they are not investing in all of their students. This could be impacting how teachers view students in the general or lower tracks (where there is an overrepresentation of minority students) and they may not be fully assisting these students with achieving high enough GPAs and the requirements for college admission.

    Just throwing that out there…



    October 6, 2009 at 1:31 am

  9. I am very interested in this subject and you have any more information on this subject I would be eager to hear about it.



    October 13, 2011 at 3:43 pm

  10. Amy

    August 21, 2012 at 2:08 pm

  11. Hi, i’m currently doing a university assignment on gentrification and have chosen to study this topic in particular. However, i would like to reference a point of which you have made and was wondering how i would go about doing that. Any help would be much appreciated. Tom



    November 23, 2012 at 12:53 pm

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