Housing as a Portal to Better Educational and Life Outcomes
Katherine O’Regan, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research.Secretary Castro has labeled HUD the “Department of Opportunity” in recognition that through its housing and community efforts, HUD’s goal is to improve lives. And for the low-income children HUD serves, perhaps no outcome would have a greater impact on their future than improving their educational attainment. Supporting improved educational achievement of the children we serve both increases their opportunities and helps break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Indeed, countering the increasing educational gap between children from lower- and higher-income families is necessary to level the playing field. But what is HUD’s role in this effort?
Factors That Drive Educational Outcomes
In a recent article marking the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report, Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest, Greg J. Duncan, and Ariel Kalil examined how various family characteristics during childhood affect educational attainment by adulthood. The work confirms the well-documented role of family factors in educational attainment, including the negative effect of being raised in a single-parent household. It also confirms that controlling for household income essentially eliminates this family structure effect; the real issue is these households’ lack of resources. Children raised in households with fewer resources complete fewer years of schooling and are less likely to go to college, perpetuating an intergenerational cycle of poverty. Two other empirical findings in that article, however, remind us of the many factors that matter in shaping educational outcomes and what might be most promising as approaches to foster true opportunity. In particular:
- Mother’s education matters a lot. It has a very large effect on a child’s school completion, and this effect persists even after controlling for income. These results tell us that if we succeed in increasing educational outcomes in one generation, it is “‘paid forward” to the next. Increasing the educational attainment of the children we serve today also independently contributes to better educational outcomes for their children tomorrow.
- Other factors matter too. This article, and a much broader body of research, documents a large array of factors both within and beyond the family that matter for child educational outcomes. In addition to any direct efforts to decrease income inequality, these factors are all levers that could potentially be influenced by policies. We should focus on the entire set of influences – in combination - if we wish to improve educational outcomes for our least advantaged children. We must think broadly about the levers that can accomplish this, including housing.
Housing as a Platform
There is now considerable evidence on the role of stable and affordable housing in education outcomes. Summarized in our recent Evidence Matters publication, housing matters well beyond its location and proximity to schools; its quality, affordability, and stability all affect educational performance. It is also worth recognizing that these factors are important throughout all stages of life and education. Research suggests that housing instability may be particularly damaging during middle childhood or early adolescence. Housing also continues to play a role in educational outcomes through the college years; as described in the Office of Policy Development and Research’s Insights, a surprising 56,000 college students reported homelessness in 2013.
The recognition that stable, affordable housing is needed to achieve good educational outcomes — and that better educational outcomes are needed for improving the life trajectories of low-income children — provides the ideal mission alignment between affordable housing providers and schools. The recent Summit on Affordable Housing and Education convened by the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities and other nonprofit and philanthropic partners gathered some of the most innovative partnerships in this nexus — those between public housing agencies and school systems. The conversation at the summit and HUD’s work in this area confirmed three key points.
Leveraging Partnerships for Greatest Impact
1.) Data infrastructure and data sharing agreements.
Each of the partnerships discussed the primacy of data and data sharing in its work. Privacy rules, however, can inhibit such sharing, preventing school districts from sharing student records with public housing agencies and limiting the ability to collect data, understand student trends and needs, and measure performance. Formal data agreements are needed, but they are not always simple to establish.
This is an area in which federal partners can be helpful. HUD is currently involved in a housing and data matching pilot project (run by Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania) through which HUD used data licensing agreements to provide data on assisted households to six jurisdictions, to be matched with educational data and used by local researchers. This project will shed light on educational outcomes for children in assisted housing over time, and it also tests the feasibility of partnering between HUD and jurisdictions on data-matching efforts.
2.) Partnerships must be at the systems level.
The symposium was specifically focused on the alignment of housing and school systems. Given the prevalence of school choice, partnership can no longer mean focusing on a single neighborhood school. The experience of HUD’s first five Choice Neighborhoods implementation sites is illustrative. Choice Neighborhoods’ comprehensive approach to community development requires a focus on education and working with schools. Yet only one of the five implementation sites has a neighborhood school to partner with; in one site, children attend as many as 50 different schools. Working to improve educational outcomes needs to be much broader than working to improve the quality of the one nearest school.
Of course, the existence of school choice presents both challenges and opportunities. Research suggests that lower-income families may be less likely to exercise school choice, and those that do are less likely to choose higher-performing schools. Recent work with Choice Neighborhoods grantees found that competing issues, such as access to transportation or safety concerns, may outweigh selection of higher performing schools by under-resourced parents.
School choice also provides an opportunity to think differently about the perceived tensions between mobility and stability in housing and education. With meaningful choice in schools, HUD’s assisted households can get access to better schools while maintaining housing stability. Similarly, school stability need not be sacrificed when families move. This is critically important as research continues to emphasize the role of stability in good childhood outcomes.
3.) Housing as a Portal.
While housing may be a critical platform for a child’s success, partnerships between public housing agencies and school systems are also using housing in another way, as a portal into the lives of children before they enroll in school and into their time outside of school, and as a means of engaging with the entire family. Twenty-eight percent of poor children of color live in assisted housing; HUD houses 58 percent of poor African-American children. Our housing can offer access to low-income children earlier, and in a more sustained way, than any other public institution can. This access is particularly useful for interventions that are increasingly holistic in nature and engage the entire family; those that recognize that improving outcomes for children cannot be achieved with one program, along only one dimension.
Housing as a portal into the entire family may be promising for improving outcomes of low-income families in the context of school choice. This area is one in which there is much to learn about best practices, from how to support more informed decision-making to identifying the key barriers to meaningful choice. As a lesson from practice, work with HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods grantees suggests that families benefit most from consistent support in navigating the education system, not just at transition points when they’re selecting schools.
The educational achievement gap by income is now nearly twice as large as the black-white gap in this country. Addressing inequality requires reversing that trend and breaking the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage. Any agency, sector, or foundation that is interested in improving outcomes for the lowest-income children in this country, particularly minority children, should have housing and HUD in their sights as a critical partner; we house many of these children, and we reach them before just about any other public institution.