By John Thompson.
Hopefully, a new quasi-experimental study, The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children, by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz will influence the domestic policy of Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration. Hopefully, Hillary will understand that this new research by Chetty et. al refutes the teacher-bashing policies promoted by Chetty, Jonah Rockoff, and John Friedman in their previous study of the impact teachers made on students. This prior study has been used to justify the use of VAM in teacher evaluations, and the elimination of due process for teachers.
The new Chetty et. al data shows that the place where children live has a major effect on the economic prospects of poor children. The old Chetty et. al commentary denied that the place where children went to school had an important effect on their outcomes.
The new Chetty shows that the 1990s Moving to Opportunity program improved the health of children who move to better neighborhoods and resulted in a 31% increase in their income. The old Chetty denied that peer pressure had a significant effect on teens and he leaped to the conclusion that it was the influence of teachers, inside the four walls of the classroom, that raised economic outcomes.
As the New York Times’ Paul Tough explains, school reform came from “liberal ptsd” from supposedly losing the War on Poverty. As the New York Times’ David Leonhardt, Amanda Cox, and Claire Cain Miller report, Moving to Opportunity was once seen as an example of an unsuccessful antipoverty program, and its “apparent failure has haunted social scientists and policy makers, making poverty seem all the more intractable.” Concluding that the battle against poverty was too hard, accountability-driven school reformers attempted a cheap and easy shortcut. As Stanford Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban says, these reformers tried to “deputize” teachers as the agents for breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
Test-driven school reformers pushed the bizarre claim that it was poor “teacher quality,” as opposed to the lack of jobs, segregation, and other complex, interrelated factors, that was the key to fighting extreme poverty. And, they did so in a way that was equally strange. Seeming to be oblivious to the dubious history of the old conservative economic theory of “creative destruction,” they pushed its 1990s progeny, the new conservative economic theory of “disruptive innovation.” Essentially, they sought to kick down the education barn under the assumption that it would magically be replaced by “transformational change.”
Destroy the education “status quo,” reformers believed, and a system of incentives and disincentives would then create an entirely new system. So, all they needed to do was destroy local school governance and education schools, undermine teachers unions, due process, and the professional autonomy of teachers and some sort of new system would rise from their ashes and overcome the legacies of generational poverty.
The contemporary school reform movement, now known as “corporate reform,” consciously set out to be the opposite of traditional school reform. And, this led to a curious bifurcation. The old approach to school improvement was based on social science, so output-driven reformers ignored its lessons and committed to Big Data. Many reformers made it a point of pride that they had not read education research and history.
True believers in Big Data don’t believe they need to understand the historical or social and economic context in which education or housing policies operate. Hypotheses!?!? Big Data don’t need no stinkin hypotheses.
Big Data studies try to run enough regression analyses, so that the data will point the way. So, the old Chetty et. al ignored the logistics of schools and the various ways that they are run. Even though his methodology did not allow Chetty to determine whether it was valid to evaluate individual teachers based on his statistical model, he and a coauthor regaled the press with their opinions in favor of quickly firing individual teachers and he testified in court in opposition to tenure.
Hopefully, this reconsideration of Moving to Opportunity will help swing the pendulum back towards social science-based education policies. The Times Leonhardt, who has previously written in support of its opposite – market-driven reform that rewards and punishes teachers while ignoring the effects of intense concentrations of poverty, introduced Chetty’s new work to the  nation. He does so after the Times’ Nick Kristof, who has also supported Chetty-style reform hypotheses, shifted gears and called for science-based early education policies.
We should welcome former data-driven reformers who return to the data-informed, science-based fold, so I will only make one joking and one more serious critique of the new Chetty et. al methodology. When I followed the link to the Times’ interactive graphic, it predicted that I live in Canadian County, Oklahoma. So, the newspaper’s computer program (perhaps assuming that if I read the Times I must be affluent enough to live in the exurbs) is good enough to understand a lot of patterns of readership, but it made a mistake in this individual case. In contrast to Chetty’s teacher evaluation model, such a mistake won’t cost anyone his or her career.
Actually, I live in central Oklahoma County, close to the old industrial job sites that relocated to Canadian County with the assistance of Ronald Reagan’s “Supply Side Economics.” In 1983, alone, Reagan’s tax breaks helped destroy 10% of our state’s jobs, and by the 1990s, nearly all our county’s good-paying blue collar jobs were gone. A disproportionate number went to Canadian County.
So, poor children raised in Canadian County have better economic prospects than children in 83% of the nation’s counties. On the average, they can expect to earn $3,130 more than comparable children.  Poor children raised in Oklahoma County have worse outcomes than comparable children in 83% of counties. They earn an average of $1,470 less.
Not coincidentally, Oklahoma City schools are under siege for its low student performance. Parents in Oklahoma County, however, can choose from 23 school systems and an array of charter and magnet schools. Average out the area’s academic outcomes and the metropolitan schools’ student performance is the same as the state as a whole.
In other words, even the new Chetty study doesn’t explain the causes of poverty in every county in the nation, but it provides more evidence on the damaging effects of the housing segregation that is intertwined with generational poverty. It implicitly argues for socio-economic integration.
New research on Moving to Opportunity does not argue for the increased racial and economic segregation that has been made worse by data-driven school reform. It certainly gives no support for Chetty’s dismissal of the effects of segregation within schools. On the contrary, it is consistent with Kristof’s new appraisal of school reform, which argues for the repudiation of the simplistic quick fixes known as output-driven reform. (It would also be nice if non-educators like Kristof read more education research and became less trusting of simplistic school reform spin, but I don’t want to emphasize divisiveness.)
Hopefully Hillary Clinton and, perhaps, members of the Obama administration will reject the old Chetty, embrace the new Chetty, and promote for socio-economic integration, high-quality early education, and full-service community schools.
And maybe, just maybe, Democrats will once again pay attention to working peoples’ jobs, not just the opinions of corporate elites.
What do you think? Will non-educators recognize the incompatibility of Raj Chetty’s new research and his opinions on school reform? Will policymakers realize the difference between environments – in schools and in the streets – where economic opportunity exist, as opposed to places where jobs have disappeared? 


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. H.A.Hurley    

    Another great example of a Wunderkind turning heads, rushing off to Harvard, raising eyebrows, researchers are just smitten, rise to full academic tenure before 30, EXPERT…EXPERT…EXPERT – recommending and testifying…halos galore!?
    Real Life, real prople, real children are just numbers and percentages.
    Here is a great example of a Wunderkind who should be working at Hamburger U for a while, rubbing elbows with real people who will give him feedback in a nano second.

    Malcolm Forbes once said: It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.
    Painful to watch & raise other peoples’ children, especially when they are Wunderkinder shining their halos.

  2. jonathanlovell    

    Very thorough and enlightening analyses of the movement-to-opportunity-informed “new” Raj Chetty, John. However, you’ll be less surprised than most to learn that here in the SF Bay Area the study by Chetty et al. is being used to promote larger and more nuanced voucher programs. Seems there’s no such thing as as research study, no matter its conclusions, that can’t be manhandled into conformity with the reformist agenda.

    1. John ThompsonJohn Thompson    

      I shouldn’t be surprised. But, dang, have they no shame?

      1. jonathanlovell    

        Apparently not, John, but your acute analysis may help to persuade some folks who are less fixed-minded.

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