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Blame for School Achievement Gap Misplaced

Susan Notes:

Quote from this informative and valuable policy brief when writing letters to editors, letters to members of Congress, and so on about the fatal flaws of NCLB.

Press Release

New report urges policymakers to address poverty in order to increase student learning

Contact: Teri Battaglieri â" (517) 203-2940; greatlakescenter@greatlakescenter.org
David Berliner â" (480) 861-0484; berliner@asu.edu

EAST LANSING, Mich., (March 9, 2009) â" A new report argues that out-of-school factors related to poverty are the major cause of the achievement gap that exists between poor and minority students and the rest of the student population. This is in direct contrast to current federal education policies that are based on the belief that public schools should shoulder the blame for lack of achievement on the part of impoverished students.

âSchools are told to fix problems that largely lie outside their zone of influence,â says David Berliner, Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University and author of the report Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, which was released today by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Berlinerâs report comes as debate continues over the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act, which imposes stiff accountability measures on schools in return for federal aid. NCLB requires public schools to demonstrate âadequate yearly progressâ toward the eventual elimination of gaps in achievement among all demographic groups of students and imposes a variety of sanctions if they fall short.

Berliner says that NCLBâs accountability system is âfatally flawedâ because it holds schools accountable for student achievement without regard for the out-of-school factors that affect it.

âThis report provides exactly the type of information that should guide education policy,â says Teri Battaglieri, Director of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. âIt clearly explains why poverty must be directly addressed by those interested in closing the achievement gap, and it makes the case for spending our resources on strategies that will significantly impact student learning.â

Berlinerâs report reviews six out-of-school factors that have been clearly linked to lower achievement among poor and minority-group students: birth weight and non-genetic parental influences; medical care; food insecurity; environmental pollution; family breakdown and stress; and neighborhood norms and conditions. In addition, he notes a seventh factor: extended learning opportunities in the form of summer programs, after-school programs, and preschool programs. Access to these resources by poor and minority students could help mitigate the effects of the other six factors.

Because of the extraordinary influence of the six factors identified in the report, Berliner cautions that âincreased spending on schools, as beneficial as that might be, will probably come up short in closing the gaps.â Instead, he calls for an approach to school improvement that would demand âa reasonable level of societal accountability for childrenâs physical and mental health and safety.â

âAt that point,â he concludes, âmaybe we can sensibly and productively demand that schools be accountable for comparable levels of academic achievement for all Americaâs children.â

Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success
Executive Summary

The U.S. has set as a national goal the narrowing of the achievement gap between
lower income and middle-class students, and that between racial and ethnic
groups. This is a key purpose of the No Child Left Behind act, which relies
primarily on assessment to promote changes within schools to accomplish that
goal. However, out-of-school factors (OSFs) play a powerful role in generating
existing achievement gaps, and if these factors are not attended to with equal
vigor, our national aspirations will be thwarted.

This brief details six OSFs common among the poor that significantly affect the
health and learning opportunities of children, and accordingly limit what schools
can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal
influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a
result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4)
environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6)
neighborhood characteristics. These OSFs are related to a host of poverty-induced
physical, sociological, and psychological problems that children often bring to
school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive
absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior.

Also discussed is a seventh OSF, extended learning opportunities, such as preschool,
after school, and summer school programs that can help to mitigate some
of the harm caused by the first six factors.
Because Americaâs schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and
ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater
frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities.

These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving
wealthier children, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed. Efforts to
improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change
through test-based accountability, are thus unlikely to succeed unless
accompanied by policies to address the OSFs that negatively affect large numbers
of our nationsâ students. Poverty limits student potential; inputs to schools affect
outputs from them.

Therefore, it is recommended that efforts be made to:
ï· Reduce the rate of low birth weight children among African Americans,
ï· Reduce drug and alcohol abuse,
ï· Reduce pollutants in our cites and move people away from toxic sites,
ï· Provide universal and free medical care for all citizens,
ï· Insure that no one suffers from food insecurity,
ï· Reduce the rates of family violence in low-income households,
ï· Improve mental health services among the poor,
ï· More equitably distribute low-income housing throughout communities,
ï· Reduce both the mobility and absenteeism rates of children,
ï· Provide high-quality preschools for all children, and
ï· Provide summer programs for the poor to reduce summer losses in their
academic achievement.


No one doubts that schools can be powerful influences on youth, when
those schools are safe and have engaging curriculum and experienced and caring
teachers who possess subject matter competency and pedagogical skill. But
Americaâs public schools often come up short in these regards. And even nearperfect
schools can show disappointing results, since school effects have limits. In
part, this is because of time: U.S. students spend about 1,150 waking hours a year
in school versus about 4,700 more waking hours per year in their families and
neighborhoods.2 Further, many schools have a one-size-fits-all orientation, not
easily accommodating the myriad differences in talents and interests among youth
or helping them cope, in ways that youth find nurturing or useful, with school as
well as non-school factors associated with family, community, society, and lifeâs
problems. Such non-school factors, in fact, exert a powerful influence on student
behavior and school learning, and those that are harmful (for example, having a
mild birth defect) hurt impoverished youth more frequently and with greater
severity than they do youth in middle-class or wealthy families.

Recently, some of the nationâs educational leaders have become concerned
about such deleterious out-of-school influences on students, an issue brought to
the fore by the difficulties that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has had
producing sizeable achievement gains among poor children. Susan Neuman, for
example, formerly Assistant Secretary of Education in the George W. Bush
administration and an overseer of NCLB, has clearly stated what many education
researchers have argued for some timeâ"namely, that schools alone will not
ordinarily be able to improve achievement for poor and minority students.3 She
and others who recognize the limits of NCLB, including some of the most
distinguished educators in the nation, have joined together to promote a âbroader,
bolder approachâ to education. They argue:

The potential effectiveness of NCLB has been seriously
undermined ... by its acceptance of the popular assumptions that
bad schools are the major reason for low achievement, and that an
academic program revolving around standards, testing, teacher
training, and accountability can, in and of itself, offset the full
impact of low socioeconomic status on achievement.4

This brief addresses these concerns, offering an overview of key out-ofschool-
factors (OSFs) that contribute to differences in student behavior and
academic achievement.

The effects of OSFs on impoverished youth merit close attention for three

First, studies of school-age children during the school year and over their
summer break strongly suggest that most of the inequality in cognitive skills and
differences in behavior come from family and neighborhood sources rather than
from schools. The research evidence is quite persuasive that schools actually tend
to reduce the inequality generated by OSFs and have the potential to offer much
greater reductions.5

Second, despite their best efforts at reducing inequalities, inequalities do
not easily go away, with the result that Americaâs schools generally work less
well for impoverished youth and much better for those more fortunate. Recent test
results from Americaâs National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and
from the international comparisons in both the Trends in International
Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program on International
Student Assessment (PISA) all show this pattern. Figure 1 (following), from
TIMSS 2007, illustrates how closely linked school scores are to the schoolâs
enrollment of low-income students. Comparing the scores of schools in 58
countries in the TIMSS pool against only wealthier American schools, instead of
overall averages, makes the link clear. Looking first at the American schools with
the lowest levels of povertyâ"where under 10% of the students are poorâ"we find
that the average scores of fourth grade American students are higher than in all
but two of the other 58 countries.6 Similarly, in American schools where under
25% of the students are poor, the average scores of fourth grade American
students are higher than all but four of these other countries.

On average, then, about 31% of American students of all races and
ethnicities (about 15 million out of some 50 million public school students),
attend schools that outperform students in 54 other nations in mathematics. These
are schools, however, that have few poor students.7 This suggests that if families
find ways for their children to attend public schools where poverty is not a major
school challenge, then, on average, their children will have better achievement
test performance than students in all but a handful of other nations.
In American schools where more than 25% of the schoolsâ students are
poor, however, achievement is not nearly as good. This suggests that
policymakers might attend more to the OSFs among this populationâ"even as
NCLB, the nationâs current educational policy, primarily focuses on withinschool
processes that contribute to the achievement gap. It also suggests the third
reason for concern about OSFs and their impact on impoverished youth: the
contemporary zeitgeist.

We live in âoutcome-oriented,â âbottom line,â âaccountabilityâ times.
This brief is being written after NCLB has dominated educational discourse for
more than seven years. This law, reflecting and enhancing the accountabilityoriented
zeitgeist in which we live, focuses almost exclusively on school outputs,
particularly reading and mathematics achievement test scores. The law was
purposely designed to pay little attention to school inputs in order to ensure that
teachers and school administrators had âno excusesâ when it came to better
educating impoverished youth.

The occasional school that overcomes the effects of academically
detrimental inputsâ"high rates of food insecurity, single heads of households,
family and neighborhood violence, homelessness and transiency, illnesses and
dental needs that are not medically insured, special education needs, language
minority populations, and so forthâ"has allowed some advocates to declare that
schools, virtually alone, can ensure the high achievement of impoverished youth.
This point is made by Chenoweth9 in a book documenting schools that âbeat the
odds,â and it is the point made repeatedly by Kati Haycock,the influential head of
the Education Trust,10 and other organizations like hers.

For the rest of this policy brief, go here. [pdf file]

— David Berliner
Great Lakes Center


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