In Houston, Black and Hispanic students on average lag between 3.0 and 3.6 years behind white students, as if they were absent for a quarter of their K-12 schooling.1 Pause here, re-read the previous sentence, and let that sink in for a moment.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the groups that lag behind make up a majority of our student population. In Texas, Blacks and Hispanics represent two-thirds of public-school students.2 In Houston Independent School District (HISD), Blacks and Hispanics are about 84% of the student population.3 Lagging groups are the largest and fastest-growing.

These academic achievement gaps are extremely costly to everyone. Nationally, the gaps, which average two to three years of schooling, greatly hinder economic growth and suppress earnings and tax revenue. A 2009 report by McKinsey & Company estimated that gaps in U.S. educational achievement had affected GDP more severely than all recessions from the 1970s up to that point.4 More recent estimates suggest that closing gaps would increase GDP by $551 billion and increase local, state and federal tax revenues by $198 billion annually.5 With these returns, we can justify investing significant resources in closing achievement gaps.

“Gaps in U.S. educational achievement affected GDP more severely than all recessions from the 1970s through 2009.”

How the education gap formed in Houston

Where do we begin? I say we start with the root cause. Ten years of data from over 4,000 school districts, and about 430 million test scores, reveal that the strongest predictor of academic achievement gaps is school segregation — specifically, the racial concentration of poverty in schools.6 

Among public school students nationwide, 45% of Black students and 45% of Hispanic students attend a high-poverty school (with 75% or more students in poverty), compared to only 8% of white students.7 In HISD, 76% of Black students and 80% of Hispanic students attend high-poverty schools, compared to 14% of white students.8 At both the national and local level (within HISD), Black and Hispanic students are more than five times more likely to attend a high-poverty school than white students, resulting in very different educational experiences.

Everything is harder in high-poverty schools, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. Despite the heroic efforts of many educators, community leaders, and philanthropists, most high-poverty schools struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers and administrators, tend to offer fewer advanced courses and fine arts, students have more disciplinary actions, and English learners take longer to become proficient — along with other examples. It even costs more per-pupil to educate a poor student in a high-poverty school than it does to educate a similar student in a low-poverty school.9

It’s time to dismantle the racial concentration of poverty in schools and close academic achievement gaps. It’s not enough to send more resources to Black and Brown high-poverty schools while continuing to maintain a system of segregation. Although additional resources can be helpful, this approach ultimately does not address the root cause and is not sustainable in the long run.The racial concentration of poverty in schools is the result of economic and racial segregation in neighborhoods that produce segregated, neighborhood schools. We maintain this system through personal and policy choice. 

How Houston can close performance gaps in education

Closing academic performance gaps requires a systemic approach — one that moves beyond individual actions, such as how hard students work, how well teachers teach, or how much parents care about their children’s education. These factors matter, of course, but they don’t explain academic performance gaps. A systemic approach addresses the underlying systems that determine the types of educational experiences students will have.

A systemic approach has two components. First, we must acknowledge — and learn from — our region’s history. The educational inequities described here did not develop by chance but rather by careful planning by our predecessors. Historian Karen Benjamin documented that, during a massive school expansion program in 1924, the newly created HISD school board worked closely with the city’s planning commission to develop a racialized zoning system in order to protect real estate interests.10 This powerful coalition determined where 50 new school buildings would be located. Although schools were already segregated by race, Black schools and white schools previously were located in the same neighborhoods, with one Black school in each of Houston’s six wards. However, during this expansion, new school sites were selected to create segregated neighborhoods, and schools that did not fit the master plan of racialized zoning were closed, neglected, or moved. In 1929, a Texas Appellate Court declared this unconstitutional and the City Council rejected the commission’s zoning plan, but school construction was almost complete and the damage was done, setting in motion a powerful system that persists almost 100 years later.

The second component of a systemic approach requires careful coordination across local, state, and federal levels. This is challenging but definitely feasible, especially now. At the federal level, efforts are already underway to promote school integration, including the Strength in Diversity Act, the Economic Fair Housing Act, and changes in Title I funding to encourage integration. At the state level, more can be done to increase funding for our most disadvantaged students (and improve the distribution of that funding), to improve accountability for closing gaps, and perhaps even to introduce accountability for integration. At the local level, district controlled-choice programs and inter-district agreements can be developed to promote integration and close gaps.

“The educational inequities described here did not develop by chance but rather by careful planning by our predecessors.”

If we want to undo the racialized system we inherited from our predecessors, we must implement the same methods they used to set it up. Rather than approaching housing and education as separate domains, we must recreate a coalition of education and housing leaders, including community stakeholders from all racial groups and neighborhoods, to dismantle the system of racialized zoning that continues to harm our students, our economy, and our democracy. The work of the coalition should be grounded in the needs and solutions of community members, activists, and practitioners, and incorporate the leadership and voices of individuals with lived experience.

The Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research (KIUR) at Rice University are poised to help convene and support such a coalition, with long-standing relationships with numerous city and county housing and transportation organizations and HERC’s 11 Houston-area school district partners. In addition, KIUR’s Urban Data Platform, a secure data repository of geocoded data for the Houston metropolitan area, can inform the coalition’s work by providing access to hundreds of datasets about Houston’s demographics, housing, education, health, transportation, etc.

We know this systemic approach is effective and powerful because it worked and lasted nearly 100 years. Houston is ready to dismantle concentrated poverty in our schools and close the academic performance gaps that have plagued us far too long.


1Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University. 2021. “Exploring Educational Opportunity in Houston ISD, TX.” Retrieved from 

2 Texas Education Agency. 2020. Enrollment in Texas public schools, 2019-20. (Document No. GE20 601 12). Retrieved from 

3Houston Independent School District. 2021. “2020-2021 Facts and Figures.” Retrieved from 

4Auguste, Byron G. et al. 2009. “The economic cost of the US education gap,” McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from 

5Lynch, Robert G. and Patrick Oakford. 2014. “The Economic Benefits of Closing Educational Achievement Gaps,” Center for American Progress. Retrieved from 

6Matheny et al. 2021. “Uneven Progress: Recent Trends in Academic Performance Among U.S. School Districts,” Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford. Retrieved from 

7National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from 

8Houston Education Research Consortium analysis of HISD data.

9Taylor et al. 2021. “A Study on Geographic Education Cost Variations and School District Transportation Costs,” TEA Contract #4077. Retrieved from 

10Benjamin, Karen.  Segregation Built to Last: Schools and Housing in the New South. Forthcoming.

Published by Ruth N. López Turley

Ruth N. López Turley is a Professor of Sociology, Founder and Director of the Houston Education Research Consortium, and Associate Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, at Rice University.

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