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Cool People You Should Know: Stefanie DeLuca

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Stefanie DeLuca is a sociologist who teaches at Johns Hopkins. Self-described as "Ann Coulter's anti-matter, but not as tall," DeLuca has recently been named a W.T. Grant Foundation Scholar - a prestigious five-year award - to study residential mobility in the lives of poor adolescents. Deluca is a rare find in educational research as she is equally skilled in quantitative and qualitative methods, and has used both approaches to study the effects of residential mobility on poor children and their families.

DeLuca's work on the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, which attempted to relocate poor families from high-poverty neighborhoods by providing housing vouchers, is a good example of her ability to get her head around tough problems in novel ways. Though everyone expected that moving to a better neighborhood would have a positive impact on students' academic achievement, the MTO project found no effects. DeLuca, who interviewed program participants in Baltimore, has attempted to explain why in this article in Education Next. You can read an interesting bio-profile about her experiences conducting this research here. Her conclusions are worth quoting at length:
The interviews conducted in Baltimore shed light on the explanations for why the MTO experiment didn’t lead to better schools and educational achievement. Many MTO parents told us about frightening conditions in their children’s schools and their concern for their children’s well-being. Yet these fears and realities did not always translate into efforts to remove their children from these environments. Poor mothers and their children juggle myriad extreme conditions, and schooling is not always on the top of the list. Murder, crippling drug addiction, suspicious landlords, diabetes, and depression took center stage in the lives of many, if not most, MTO families we interviewed. While neighborhood change could be a necessary condition to protect children and improve their schooling, it is not sufficient in light of the deep morass of issues that characterize the lives of the urban poor.

Many social policies assume that all low-income parents approach opportunity the same way that most middle-class families do, and that the main problem is a lack of financial resources. Our interviews provide a reminder that poor families are not just wealthy families without a bankbook. Poor parents often have less information about school choice programs and school quality than do middle-class parents. Poor families may approach opportunities, and in particular may secure schooling for their children, in ways that diverge from many research models of educational decision making.

These insights are also relevant to school choice policy in general. Many cities, including those in which MTO families were living, have expanded school choice programs. No Child Left Behind gives parents the option of sending their child to another school if the current one doesn’t make adequate progress. The success of these policies in enhancing education opportunities for the types of families who participated in the MTO experiment will depend on gaining a better understanding of how these families view the school choice process and where it fits into their overall strategies for well-being.
DeLuca's other projects will also be of interest to many eduwonkette readers. She has examined the effects of delaying entry into postsecondary education after high school, finding that delaying college is associated with lower odds of getting a BA. Another strain of her work looks at the effects of non-cognitive skills - for example, student effort, engagement, and motivation - on students' educational attainment (i.e. how long they stay in school and what degrees they earn). Very much looking forward to the papers coming out of that project.

If all of that wasn't enough, here's one more tidbit: It's rumored that DeLuca has impeccable taste in shoes. Can't vouch myself, but it came from a good source. A girl after my own heart indeed.
6 Comments

First of all, love a smart girl with some style! I myself, despite the constant warnings about my back, wear heels to teach in every day. I love me some shoes.

Second of all, I am anxious to read DeLuca's report today, although I enjoyed your quote. I have so many conversations with well-intentioned people who just don't understand the cyclical nature of poverty and the myriad of problems urban poor families face. It took a long time for me to realize that my priorities for their children were not always the same...I think that sort of realization comes with maturity and experience in the field, but it make easier to swallow all the time.

Thanks for the heads up on a dynamic researcher.

At the risk of being branded a "status quoer" or a Rothstein freak, this work seems to get to the heart of so many problems in closing the famous "gap." It touches on the creaming charter schools can do. Experienced teachers in poverty public schools are well aware of these factors and without any mechanisms to address them, can sink into the "low expectations" game where they do a form of triage teaching.

Will just "fixing" the schools with "quality" teachers and new leadership do the job as the so-called ed reformers claim? Does this mean the problems cannot be addressed? I still maintain that loads of money on the scale of the Iraq war but spent more wisely would have a major impact.

I asked Chester Finn at a Manhattan Inst. luncheon whether the gap would be closed and every child would go on to college if every school in the nation were a KIPP school. He said that 30% more kids would benefit but admitted that 30% would still be left behind. I think his numbers are way off. And DeLuca's work seems to point in that direction.

Mimi - Teaching in heels is serious dedication. You are way more hard core than I am;)

"Many social policies assume that all low-income parents approach opportunity the same way that most middle-class families do, and that the main problem is a lack of financial resources."

Any policy that relies on decision making or choice by families mired in poverty is doomed to fail. Any families capable of making good choices, probably already would of.

That is why it is imperative to develop a successful school system to help teach middle class values and grade level skills and to break the cycle of destruction.

"Poor parents often have less information about school choice programs and school quality than do middle-class parents. Poor families may approach opportunities, and in particular may secure schooling for their children, in ways that diverge from many research models of educational decision making."

This I saw first hand in the schools I worked in. There was such a lack of parental information. Parents didn't know how to help their kids, and sometimes they thought they were helping but they were not. Recently some of my past students applied to NYC high schools and I was shocked how misguided the students and their parents were about the choices available to them.

"That is why it is imperative to develop a successful school system to help teach middle class values and grade level skills and to break the cycle of destruction."

What exactly are middle class values? I worked with mostly poor kids and parents for my entire career and found many values that my friends who worked with middle class kids say were often missing or at a low level. Are we looking for people who believe in competition? Individualism? I found a spirit of generosity and a willingness to share that impressed me. I learned to appreciate the tremendous difficulties poverty can bring. The attempt to resist the dangers of the streets that consumed so many. The wonderful excitement and reactions from kids when I took them anywhere on a trip out of the neighborhood. They and their families seemed to appreciate anything you did for them.

Friends who worked with people with middle class values tell me they never got the respect from people who earned more than them that we received in poverty areas. When teachers who were liked walked across the street through the projects they were treated like rock stars.

Want to break the pattern of destruction? Find people decent jobs and health care. Thinking they are where they are because they lack middle class values is blaming the victim.

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