Researchers receive MacArthur Foundation grant to study how housing affects children’s learning

Foreclosures, vacant houses and declining neighborhoods breed serious health and safety problems. But can living amid such conditions also affect how well a child does in school?

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences are about to find out.

Claudia Coulton
Claudia Coulton

With a $300,000, two-year grant from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a research team led by principal investigators Claudia Coulton and Robert Fischer will study how housing and neighborhood conditions in early childhood affect school readiness and early literacy.

Coulton is the Mandel School’s Lillian F. Harris Professor of Urban Research and Social Change, Fischer is an associate professor. Both are co-directors of the social work school’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development.

The grant is one of six totaling $2.8 million the MacArthur Foundation announced Wednesday to support research that explores how housing may affect social, health and economic outcomes of children, families and communities. The six grants complete the foundation’s five-year, $25 million research investment in its “How Housing Matters to Families and Communities initiative.”

Grant recipients will use existing data to gauge the effectiveness of housing policies and related public programs.

Robert Fischer
Robert Fischer

The Coulton-Fischer study, chosen for funding from more than 300 proposals, will compare property records and school performance data—such as grades and attendance and the results of statewide kindergarten readiness assessments and third-grade proficiency tests—to determine whether there’s a correlation between neighborhood and housing conditions and how well children learn.

“The MacArthur Foundation recognized the value of the large data sets that the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development had developed over the last 20 years,” said Grover C. Gilmore, dean of the Mandel School. “Information is available on children from birth to the third grade and on the neighborhoods and houses in which they live. This ‘Big Data’ approach will permit, for the first time, a refined evaluation of the impact of neighborhood and residence on the cognitive development of children.”

In many big cities, children often enter kindergarten already well behind in their educational progress, presenting a major challenge for public education systems. While generally acknowledged that the environment in which children spend their early years is crucial, little is known about how housing conditions in children’s own homes and their immediate surroundings affect school readiness and early learning.

The study has two main goals:

  • To examine how housing experiences and conditions influence school readiness and early literacy for children entering kindergarten over a four-year period in a big city school system—in this case, Cleveland.
  • To demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of using integrated data on individual children and residential properties to investigate housing policy issues.

Real estate data used for the study includes housing conditions, values, land use, mortgage originations, sales, foreclosure filings and auctions, vacancies, code violations, demolitions, tax delinquencies and crime reports.

Property information is linked to the child’s residential locations during the first eight years of life. The study includes children who entered kindergarten in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District between 2007 and 2010.

This study will highlight the necessity of considering housing as a platform for school readiness. The research may also expand the debate about federal programs—from simply how foreclosure, demolition and rehabilitation affect home values to how they affect children.

“This,” Coulton said, “addresses the possible human cost.”