Are High Quality Schools Enough to Close the Achievement Gap? Evidence from a Social Experiment in Harlem

Will Dobbie and Roland G. Fryer, Jr
National Bureau of Economic Research
November 2009

With President Obama’s determination to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in urban districts across the country, this NBER working paper is particularly timely. It addresses the age-old question of whether schools can overcome the myriad issues that socioeconomic disadvantaged students bring to the classroom and finds that they can--but maybe not without the help of health, parenting, and college counseling services. HCZ covers a 97-block area in central Harlem--offering services to those outside its bounds as well--and incorporates programs and services from birth to college, including charter schooling at one of HCZ’s Promise Academies. They divided HCZ offerings into two groups: 1. community programs available to anyone in the Zone; 2. school programs only available to Promise Academy students and their families and school programs only available to Promise Academy students. They used a couple of methodologies, the most robust of which was comparing students who were lottiered in or out of HCZ’s charter schools. They found that students enrolled in the sixth grade made enough progress by the eighth grade to close the black-white achievement gap in math and reduce it by half in English language arts. Elementary students saw the gap closed in both subjects. Notably, analysts also found that students of all ability levels were equally benefited by attending Zone charters (and receiving the services that go along with them). The study concluded that these gains could not be attributed to the community programs alone, but they could not untangle the effects of attending one of HCZ’s charter schools from the bells and whistles that come with doing so. These gains are surely promising, but with a price tag of almost $20,000 per student (HCZ tops off public per-pupil costs with its own money), we should be wary of replicating the system willy-nilly without considering whether a small program of very dedicated people can effectively be reproduced on a national scale. You can purchase the report here.

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