Many education reformers focus their talents and attention on the most vulnerable children: low-income students stuck in the lowest performing schools. This focus reflects a dismay at persistent differences between students of different socioeconomic and racial/ethnic backgrounds, a dedication to equity, and a belief in opportunity through education.
Alongside this focus on high-need students, however, we must not forget middle class students. In fact, there are at least three win-win opportunities for policymakers, advocates, and practitioners to support middle class students while also advancing the needs of low-income kids.
The first opportunity is political. Middle-class students and their families represent a constituency of voters that is often ambivalent about or hostile to the favored education reform policies of the last decade. To make progress on policies aimed at improving outcomes for low-income kids, the support of these families is a political necessity. To win this support, policymakers and advocates could appeal to evidence or altruism, convincing middle class families of the merits of their favored policies and making a moral case that the policies will help those less fortunate. For better or worse, they will have more success with conventional political deal-making: promising middle-income families something that benefits them in return for their support. By acknowledging and supporting the needs of the middle class, policymakers and advocates will increase the chances that they will reciprocate when an education reform policy needs their support.
Second is the opportunity to realize the social and academic benefits of diverse learning communities through diverse-by-design school models. Research suggests that diverse learning communities can benefit both low-income and middle-class students. Though a small sliver of the charter sector, diverse-by-design charter schools have become more common. In a new report, Bellwether Education Partners also found a number of low-cost private schools and microschools with diverse-by-design models. Many middle income families value a diverse and inclusive learning environment for their children, and providing diverse-by-design schools with appealing academic programs and affordable price points can not only meet this demand but also help students across all income levels realize the benefits of high-quality, diverse schools. Moreover, schools that are able to attract diverse families into their classrooms may also help attract diverse families to their neighborhoods, with positive implications for community renewal.
The third opportunity to align the interests of low-income and middle-income students is based on the recognition that families in the middle class do not always stay there. For low-income students who make it to the middle class, a high-quality education is an important element for sustaining their upward economic trajectory into the next generation. For students who grow up in the middle class, a high-quality education can support their economic stability (and growth) while minimizing the risks of downward economic mobility. In other words, one way to support low-income students is to help middle-class families avoid losing ground.
Some leaders in education policy and reform will argue that paying more attention to middle class students will inevitably mean less attention to those most in need. It’s not an unfounded concern. Talent, attention, and resources are limited resources. But the “either-or” mentality is based on the sense of a zero-sum game. In fact, as the opportunities outlined here indicate, there are instances in which a broader lens — one that includes the middle class — can advance and solidify the progress of those most in need.
Juliet Squire is a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners and an author of a new report on low-cost private schools, “Working Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students.”