Social Innovation Blog: Understanding the Link Between Neighborhoods and Schools

Associate Director, USC Price Center for Social Innovation


Where a child grows up has a profound effect on her future outcomes in life. Inequality across places is a persistent feature of U.S. metropolitan areas. My research shows that over the past few decades, children have become more segregated by income across neighborhoods.

Today, high-income kids are more likely to live near other high-income kids and low-income kids are more likely to live near other low-income kids than was the case 25 years ago. What educational opportunities are available to children growing up in high- and low-income neighborhoods? In a new article in Urban Studies, my co-author Jennifer Candipan and I show that the schools serving high- and low-income neighborhoods are unequal across many dimensions, and these inequalities in educational resources are greater in metropolitan areas that are highly segregated by income.

We examine characteristics of public schools in 2013-14 in metropolitan areas, drawing on five administrative datasets from the U.S. Census and the U.S. Department of Education. We divide neighborhoods into quintiles based on median household income within their metropolitan area. We link neighborhoods to the local public schools that serve them drawing on national dataset of school attendance boundaries. Then, we examine the student body composition, attendance and disciplinary climate, teacher characteristics, school funding, and student achievement and achievement growth in the schools serving higher- and lower-income neighborhoods. Overall, we find that high-income neighborhoods are served by schools with greater social, financial, and instructional resources and higher student achievement than schools serving low-income neighborhoods.


Video Highlights: “The Link Between Neighborhoods & Schools”


Some of the most striking differences between schools serving high- and low-income neighborhoods are in the student body composition. Here, we describe differences between high-income neighborhoods—those in the highest quintile in their metropolitan area—and low-income neighborhoods—those in the lowest quintile. About 75% of high-income neighborhoods’ schools are majority white, while 75% of low-income neighborhoods’ schools are majority non-white. In schools serving low-income neighborhoods, nearly 80% of students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals, compared to only 30% in schools serving high-income neighborhoods. Of course, it is not a surprise the schools serving low-income neighborhoods enroll disadvantaged students. However, it is perhaps troubling. Attending school with other disadvantaged peers can have negative effects on student achievement, exacerbating challenges that students may face at home or in their neighborhood.

We also find that low-income neighborhoods’ schools have more inexperienced or non-certified teachers than high-income neighborhoods’ schools, and that high-income neighborhoods’ schools pay their teachers higher salaries. Per-pupil spending varies modestly between high- and low-income neighborhoods’ schools, with slightly higher levels of funding in low-income neighborhoods, reflecting decades of school finance reform. However, research indicates that educating a low-income child costs more than educating a high-income child, especially when that low-income child attends school with predominantly low-income peers. Therefore, equal or slightly progressive funding is unlikely to result in equal outcomes.


“Achievement gaps reflect differences that students start school with, not necessarily school effectiveness.”



When we turn to examining outcomes, we find striking inequalities between the schools serving high- and low-income neighborhoods. High-income neighborhoods’ schools rank at about the 70th percentile in their state for math and reading achievement, compared to the 30th percentile for low-income neighborhoods’ schools. Achievement gaps reflect differences that students start school with, not necessarily school effectiveness. We also examined whether 4th grade proficiency rates changed from 2009-10 to 2013-14, and on this school-level growth measure, we also find disparities, with schools serving high-income neighborhoods at about the 55th percentile of growth in their state compared to 45th percentile for low-income neighborhoods.

Finally, we show that these inequalities between the schools serving high- and low-income neighborhoods are exacerbated by residential income segregation, which creates very affluent and very poor neighborhoods. The inequalities result both because low-income neighborhoods lack resources and because high-income neighborhoods have an abundance of resources. Together, our results show that growing up in a low-income neighborhood limits the local educational opportunities a child can access. Neighborhoods and schools are both critically important contexts for child development. The unequal geography of opportunity is a persistent problem that has plagued our country for decades. While some progress has been made through educational interventions like school desegregation orders and housing interventions like inclusionary zoning and housing mobility programs, new approaches to this entrenched social problem may be necessary. Socially innovative approaches, including partnerships among local stakeholders and experimental pilot programs, will be critical to addressing the intertwined inequalities produced and reproduced by housing and school policy.

Watch the full version of Ann Owens’ research talk on our YouTube Channel