Relocation Programs, Opportunities to Learn, and the Complications of Conversion

Issue/Topic: At-Risk (incl. Dropout Prevention); Choice of Schools; Equity
Author(s): Johnson, Odis
Publication: Review of Educational Research
Published On: 5/15/2012

Since 1976, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has relocated low-income children of color from public housing communities to less racially and economically isolated neighborhoods in an effort to improve their developmental opportunities. Since HUD began moving public housing residents out of segregated high-rise communities through the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program, the number of such programs has grown. Are such programs a good investment?

To provide the first comprehensive evaluation summary of seven relocation programs and the reasons why six of them failed to replicate the educational successes of the inaugural Gautreaux program. (The Gautreux program was the first program to demonstrate success in linking educational trajectories to differences in environmental opportunity over the course of time.)


  • Programs that followed the Gautreaux demonstrations struggled to replicate the program's results due in part because of a failure to meet the Gautreaux’s program standards.  
  • Such programs are based on abstract theories of opportunity -- and those theories can give way to parents’ more concrete assessments of whether their children can or will actually benefit from what schools (or opportunities) offer.
  • “Membership” in a distinct social group (neighborhood or school) that is granted by a third party (i.e. policymakers) does not necessarily result in the same sense of belonging as those who “belonged” without having to be granted membership.
  • Educational policies risk being mismatched.  Mismatches arise if the educational preparedness of receiving schools falls short of what is needed to help incoming children learn.  
    • In some programs for example, suburban schools were ill equipped to provide the support for educational success on which children from the city had come to rely.
    • Stratification (e.g., tracking) within schools led to very different post-move experiences for children and lessened any potential boost that relocation might have had.  
  • Neighborhoods can be more powerful than anticipated. Even when a youth is exposed to more improved opportunities to learn, it might not be enough to undo the educational repercussions that they were exposed to in their underprivileged neighborhoods.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

  • Program standards and fidelity to implementation matter.
  • Relocation programs need to target younger children and provide supports (e.g. counseling) that could help allocate necessary resources for a child’s educational development.
  • No improvement in disadvantaged children’s educational outcomes is likely unless substantial changes are made along multiple dimensions of their social lives. More learning for resettled children may not occur if program participation does not expose children to multiple social and institutional dimensions that meet or exceed adequate thresholds. For instance, the prevalence of a wanted behavior (e.g. college ambition) in school or neighborhood peers needs to be high enough to increase the probability that others will emulate that behavior.
  • Failure to provide support on all fronts -- including academic as well as economic and cultural -- to those adjusting to their new surroundings increases the odds for failure. Relocation and education efforts need to be in strong communication with each other.  
  • The Harlem Children’s Zone presents an interesting policy alternative given that it directly introduces change to lower income children’s neighborhoods, families and schools.  

Research Design:
Meta-analysis of a final pool of 27 studies of seven different programs. To be selected, studies had to compare post-move educational experience (a) to their prior educational performance, (b) to children that did not move, (c) to those that moved to categorically different environments.

Assessed educational results that followed implementation of seven different programs enacted in 12 cities. Program affected 31,000 low-income youths and their families.

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
The majority of evaluations studied were quantitative and reported either mean differences between treatment groups (e.g., movers and stayers) or differences between educational measures taken at baseline and some years after children had relocated. Several evaluations were qualitative or mixed-method and, with the use of interview or ethnographic data, provide greater detail about the former and current educational experiences of a smaller group of youths.


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