Recent controversy surrounding the Wake County Public School System's student assignment policy has drawn the attention of academic researchers from across the country. We are two of the few cited in a letter from the school system to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights defending recent moves in eliminating the district's socioeconomically (SES) based student assignment policy. While we are happy to see our research in the public square, we want to set the record straight regarding the manner in which the school system characterized our work.
First, some background: Debate about the student assignment policy led us to wonder how the policy had been implemented over time. We were curious what the original architects of the plan thought about how it had been implemented. We were also interested in the degree to which the school system had complied with the parameters of its own SES-based student assignment policy.
Our findings indicate that many architects of the original policy viewed its implementation with some concern. They attributed a host of causes to this concern. Additionally, we found that increasingly high percentages of Wake schools were out of compliance with the policy over time. We also found, however, that levels of segregation across the district decreased for poor students but increased for African-American students. We further found that higher percentages of African-American, free-lunch and Latino students at Wake schools were associated with higher teacher turnover rates and decreased percentages of nationally board-certified teachers on faculty.
We feel that our work has been misinterpreted in a response that the school system filed with the Office of Civil Rights, as outlined in the system's letter to that office .
First, the letter implied that we used a direct quotation attributed to board Chairman Ron Margiotta. We did not interview Margiotta. We interviewed former board members and community leaders who designed the SES-based policy and asked them to reflect on its implementation and sustainability over time. These interviews were confidential; we agreed not to publicly identify any of our interviewees. Therefore, this statement is wrong in its attribution and gives a false impression as to our research methods.
Second, the letter stated that we did not take a position on whether the SES-based policy was "sound educational policy." This is true only in a limited sense. We carefully noted that we analyzed the policy's intent against actual consequences of the policy. We are not suggesting that the SES-based policy is not "sound educational policy." Indeed, our review of the literature on within-district resource allocation and student-level peer effects indicates that the existence of racially and socioeconomically isolated schools creates significant challenges for educators.
Finally, the letter pulled out a quotation about the need to examine the effect of student assignment policies on student achievement via experimental or quasi-experimental approaches, to rigorously prove the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of the SES-based policy in improving academic achievement. Such research designs will more accurately capture the effects of an SES-based student assignment and its effect on achievement. These approaches account for a host of other variables that might also be causing changes in student performance, such as geography, levels of funding, grade configuration of schools, qualifications of teachers and a raft of other unobserved student, school and district level characteristics.
While the letter correctly noted that no such assessments have been conducted, it failed to note that the school system's response is entirely predicated upon the type of casual and uncontrolled comparisons we decry at the end of our paper. Making brute comparisons of groups of students - such as examining student performance levels by length of bus ride, or comparing cohorts of students from districts with different student assignment policies - without thoughtfully controlling for intervening factors often yields to unclear conclusions and potentially deleterious policies. Our advice on the use of more rigorous designs is made not only to the academic research community, but also to the school system itself.
As scholars and researchers, we often approach difficult or controversial topics that pique our interest. However, we endeavor as much as possible to ask thoughtful research questions and to answer them in an unbiased manner. We feel that our work has lessons for both Wake community members and school system administrators. It is unfortunate, however, to have our work misrepresented by the school system in its defense.
Eric A. Houck is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy and a Kenan faculty fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill. Sheneka Williams is an assistant professor of educational administration and policy and an affiliate faculty member with the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Georgia.