Atlantic Cities
Charts

Is There a Link Between Walkability and Local School Performance?

Is There a Link Between Walkability and Local School Performance?
Shutterstock

Public and charter schools in the District of Columbia are now classified into one of five accountability categories, all with equally uplifting names: reward, rising, developing, focus and priority (the "reward" schools are the top performers, although one might want to try to reward improvement from the struggling ones). The index is built on measurable data like test scores, enrollment growth, attendance and graduation rates, and it offers the simplest shorthand parents can use to make the weighty decision about where to send their kids to school.

Plot all of the schools on one map, by accountability level, and the city looks like this (public schools are denoted with circles and charters with triangles):

That map was created on Open Data Day a few weeks ago in D.C. by members of the Code for DC Brigade, which is trying to develop more sophisticated tools to enable area parents to decide where to send their children in a city with dozens of charter schools.

"Because we have so much choice, people don’t quite know what to do," says Sandra Moscoso, a parent and a member of the local open-data brigade. "The first step really to understand choices is to get data."

Moscoso appealed to school and city officials to release sortable data that made the above map possible. And if you're at all familiar with the geography of Washington, already a few obvious patterns pop out: The city's top-performing (and most autonomous) schools are largely clustered in the wealthy northwest corner of town, with many of the lowest performers east of the Anacostia River.

But those observations only begin to scratch the surface of what's going on inside the city's schools and how parents might navigate that landscape.

"There’s more than one dimension by which people want to make these decisions," says Harlan Harris, a data scientist and the president of Data Community DC who worked on the project. Policy-makers tend to focus on test scores. But parents also want to know if there's an art teacher on staff or a safe crosswalk outside the school. And so the real value of data newly released by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (or by any school system) is that it might be cross-referenced with other things parents might need to know: Is there a metro stop nearby? Do other parents from one neighborhood across town send their children to the same school?

In the process of thinking about these other questions, Harris compared the school accountability data to Walk Score, producing this intriguing chart that was published this week by Greater Greater Washington:

Charter schools are shown at left, public schools at right. And on the right side of the graph, a clear pattern emerges: The top-performing schools tend to be located in the most walkable areas, while the "priority" schools are located in the least walkable ones.

"I would never think that the D.C. government should be responsible for making those kinds of correlations, but they’re there," Moscoso says. And parents can identify them on their own with the right data.

It's no great revelation that those upper-income neighborhoods in the city's Northwest quadrant happen to be both walkable and home to high-performing schools. But the extent of the correlation between school performance and walkability throughout the city's public school system is striking. And it suggests that we might also want to think more broadly about the characteristics of the communities around those "priority" schools.

"I don’t have any great theory for what’s going on here," Harris says. "But I would be surprised if a couple of things weren’t important." For one, accessibility to transit tends to boost property values, meaning that families who can afford to live in such communities largely populate the schools there. Family income and educational attainment are also highly correlated. As Sarah Goodyear has previously reported, researchers have found that children who bike and walk to school are better able to concentrate when they get there.

It's curious, though, that the same correlation doesn't exist for the city's charter schools, and this may have something to do with the way those schools are geographically clustered in parts of town where supporters can afford the real estate to open them. There are no charter schools, for instance, west of Northwest 16th Street on the above map.

"But you can't throw a rock from my apartment without hitting a charter school," Harris says. As a group, he points out, those schools are not representative of the city's population – or its transit map.

None of this implies that walkability causes good schools, or that good schools create walkability around them. But this does suggest another way in which the potential benefits associated with walkable neighborhoods – like access to food, jobs, and good health – are not equally distributed around the city.

Top image: Tom Wang/Shutterstock

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

Join the Discussion