Kids forced out of CHA high-rises by demolition are no better or worse off academically than their peers who have stayed behind, according to a new study.

University of Chicago researcher Brian Jacob looked at school records for 18,369 Chicago Public Schools students who lived in CHA high-rises during the 1990s, comparing those whose buildings were demolished to those whose buildings remained.

“I found that there was no significant difference” in test scores and dropout rates between the two groups, says Jacob.

On average, people displaced by demolition did not move to communities where people moved to and the schools their kids went to. “Demolition,” he says, “did not have the impact of … leading people to move to significantly higher-income neighborhoods or significantly higher-achieving schools.”

Another likely explanation, he suggests, is that moving was a mixed bag: Students may have gotten some benefit from their new neighborhoods and schools, which might have been canceled out by the stress and adjustment of the move itself.

That explanation makes sense to David Kerbow, research associate at the U. of C.’s Center for School Improvement, who has studied student mobility extensively. “In terms of achievement, the effect of a single move is not always dramatic,” says Kerbow. “That was true in my research also. It’s movement that occurs several times over a period that has a cumulative effect. …And I think it is valid that if you move to a school that’s better-organized, then the potential negative effect of mobility can be cancelled out or mitigated.”

“The people who were hoping that this demolition would just be great, and just allow all these families to move to wealthy neighborhoods and get a new start on life– they’re gonna be disappointed,” Jacob predicts.

However, he has found that among his peers in the academic community, some people who favor getting rid of public housing altogether “thought this was great news,” he says. “They say, ‘Since [Section 8] vouchers are so much cheaper [than repairing and maintaining public housing], why not do it [demolish the high-rises], if there’s no negative effect?'”

Jacob says he was a bit surprised—and disappointed—by the results. Many of the kids he studied moved out of Robert Taylor, which he notes is “probably the worst public housing in the country.” Surely, he thought, there would be a positive effect once they moved out. “If anyone shows an effect, it should be kids leaving the worst public housing.” But he found no change.

On the whole, Jacob thinks getting rid of developments like Taylor is a good idea. “Getting rid of this very poor quality housing stock and having some opportunity to de-concentrate poverty … could have positive impacts beyond how well kids do … on standardized tests,” he says. However, it would be better if a plan for new public housing were underway before old building were torn down, he adds.

Jacob’s study, “The Impact of Public Housing Demolitions on Student Achievement in Chicago,” is part of his dissertation at the University’s Harris School of Public Policy. After receiving his doctorate this spring, Jacob will be heading to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government for a tenure-track teaching position.

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