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How NCLB Ignored the Elephant
in America's Classroom — POVERTY

by Jim Trelease, © 2004, 2007, 2008

s politician after politician and CEO after CEO have pontificated for 20 years about what is wrong in American schools, all the while offering simple-minded solutions (higher expectations girded by more high-stakes testing), nearly all have ignored the great elephant in the classroom: poverty. Their behavior said, "If we pretend it isn't there, either it will go away or cease to exist."

   Before looking at the single most intelligent approach to urban school woes (see Harlem solution below), let's look at what most impacts the classroom from outside the classroom. It is the weight of poverty that rides the at-risk child like a six-ton elephant. Consider the observations of Pulitzer-winning reporter David K. Shipler:

   "About 35 million Americans live below the federal poverty line. Their opportunities are defined by forces that may look unrelated, but decades of research have mapped the web of connections. A 1987 study of 215 children attributed differences in I.Q. in part to 'social risk factors' like maternal anxiety and stress, which are common features of impoverished households. Research in the 1990's demonstrated how the paint and pipes of slum housing — major sources of lead — damage the developing brains of children. Youngsters with elevated lead levels have lower I.Q.'s and attention deficits, and — according to a 1990 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine — were seven times more likely to drop out of school.
    Take the case of an 8-year-old boy in Boston. He was frequently missing school because of asthma attacks, and his mother was missing work so often for doctors' appointments that she was in danger of losing her low-wage job. It was a case typical of poor neighborhoods, where asthma runs rampant among children who live amid the mold, dust mites, roaches and other triggers of the disease."1

   The inherent suggestion in NCLB is that all of that will go away if we just expect more of our teachers and students. That is an insult to both of them and it diminishes the enormity of the problem while doing nothing to solve it.

   No one on either side of recent educational issues will argue against the fact that poverty children have lower scores than their suburban peers. Although Pres. George W. Bush boasted that he doesn't read newspapers and popular media, preferring to get his information "unfiltered," that is, directly from his staff and cabinet, one can assume that at least some of his staff members had seen meta-analyses like Paul Barton's 2003 study, "Parsing the Achievement Gap: Baselines for Tracking Progress," from the Policy Information Center at Educational Testing Service (available for free as a PDF file at:

   Barton's report2 of the most comprehensive yet accessible public studies on the school achievement gap. He examines the research in three separate areas in student lives that might contribute to the school achievement gap:

  1. image1imagbe2image3spacerEarly development factors (Birth weight, Lead Poisoning, Hunger and Nutrition);
  2. In-school factors (Rigor of Curriculum, Teacher Preparation, Teacher Experience and Attendance, Class Size, Technology-Assisted Instruction);
  3. Out-of-school factors (School Safety, Parent Participation, Student Mobility, Reading to Young Children, Television Watching, Parent Availability).

   Of the 14 factors of achievement, there were serious gaps between the minority and majority student populations. "Eleven of those also showed clear gaps between students from low income families and higher income families. The gaps in student achievement mirror inequalities in those aspects of school, early life, and home circumstances that research has linked to achievement."

    Like the "transfer out" option in NCLB, the School Voucher plan proposed as the messiah for inner-city America is not as simple as its proponents portray it. Katie Davis, who works with children in Washington, DC, offered National Public Radio an insight to the plan's complexities as it affected two boys who gave it a try — one succeeding, and one failing. There are essential things that private schools are not set up to do, but public schools are. (Private school classrooms usually are too small for "elephants.") Listen to her thoughtful NPR essay at Voucher Commentary. (4 minutes, "All Things Considered")

   The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 (ECLS-K) is the most comprehensive study ever done on America's kindergartners and is part of a larger study of more than 20,000 children and correlates their demographics and performance from kindergarten through fifth-grade. It is a highly accurate representation of America's racial, economic, and social class structure.

   Elizabeth Gershoff, of the National Center for Children in Poverty, examined the findings in the ECLS report and concluded that 27 million children (40 percent of the U.S. child population) come from low-income families. By kindergarten, these students are already well behind their advantaged classmates in reading, math, and general knowledge. Only 16 percent of at-risk children scored above average, never mind the highest quarter. (Los Angeles County has one of the few large scale efforts to combat these findings. Using $100 million from the state's 50-cent tax on tobacco products, the county is making quality preschool education available for all 3-5-year-olds in the county. Since California ranks 5th from the bottom in preschool education enrollments but ninth from the top in poverty, this strategy is more than impressive.3)

   Gershoff cited an even more troubling pattern for at-risk children:4

Schools with high proportions of low-income children have higher numbers of inexperienced teachers, fewer computers, less Internet access, and larger class sizes than schools with lower proportions of low-income children. Thus, the children who stand to gain the most from quality schools often do not have access to them.5

   Now let's put the above paragraph into concrete form. Writing in The New York Times, Patricia Leigh Brown looked at the urban education problems in Las Vegas, Nevada.6 That district boasts some of the nation's lowest reading scores while annually spending $1,000 less per child than the national average of $7,829. Like many urban institutions, the school Brown studied (Tony Alamo Elementary) was built for 785 students but now held 1,200. Class sizes often stretched up to 40 students, with an average transiency rate of 35 percent, although sometimes it reaches 75 percent. Faculty turnover for the district is 20 percent, an extremely high rate and due in no small measure to the the district's policy of assigning new or least experienced teachers to schools with the highest student transiency rates. This, in turn, drives struggling novice teachers out of the system or out of teaching. But in the end, the most needy students — those coming from homes with the least education among their parents — receive the weakest and least subsidized instruction.

   In May, 2004, Education Week ran a number of essays commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Two of those contributions cited the powerful influence of poverty in undermining the gains of Brown:

As of 2000, seven out of 10 black and Latino students attended predominantly minority schools, and eight out of 10 white students attended predominantly white schools. The average black or Latino student attends classes where almost half of his peers are poor. The average white student, on the other hand, attends a school where less than one in five of his peers is classified as poor. Asian students come closest to the integrationist ideal; they are most apt to be in a school that is both middle- class and multiracial.

When you place most black and Latino kids in majority-minority and heavily-poor schools, there are two main consequences, both of which contribute to an achievement gap. First, because poor students typically have greater needs, schools composed of poor students are costlier to run than schools composed of middle- and upper-income students. But in a segregated landscape where property-tax wealth is concentrated elsewhere, these extra costs are rarely covered in a way that can make a difference—that is, with small class sizes and excellent teachers. With national teacher shortages, very few strong teachers are opting to teach in challenging, often dangerous high-poverty schools that offer less pay than that available from more advantaged school systems. Second, students in schools with large numbers of poor students risk falling prey to an oppositional culture that often denigrates learning—one where pursuit of academic excellence is often perceived as "acting white." They do not enjoy a wealth of activist parents who model success and can work the educational system. White students, on the other hand, largely attend school in predominantly middle-class environments and therefore experience a very different culture—one oriented toward achievement.

The latest federal approach is not helping much. The Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act responds to the achievement dilemma in part by requiring standards testing for all racial groups and mandating penalties for failing schools. But the act is heavier on mandates for testing than it is with additional resources for the most challenged schools to meet these demands. In fact, the Bush administration reneged on its promise to seek an additional $5.8 billion in funding for the poorest schools to meet the act’s tough performance requirements.7

Excerpted from "The American Dilemma Continues," by Sheryll Cashin, Education Week, May 19, 2004. Cashin is the author of The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream (Public Affairs, 2004), from which she adapted the essay. A professor of law at Georgetown University, she was a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

The second essay in that commemorative issue of Education Week came from Richard Rothstein, author of Class and Schools, published jointly in Spring 2004 by Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Economic Policy Institute. Rothstein has long argued that social forces, more than anything, determine the achievement level of students. Here he cites but a few examples of those forces:

  Health differences also affect learning. Lower-class children have twice the rate of poor vision of middle- class children, partly from prenatal conditions, partly from how their eyes are trained as infants and toddlers, with more television watching and fewer manipulative toys. They have poorer oral hygiene, more lead poisoning, more asthma, poorer nutrition, and less-adequate pediatric care. Each of these well- documented social-class characteristics may have a small effect for any child, but each palpably influences academic achievement; combined, their influence grows.

   Consider that poor children have more dental cavities than middle- class children (three times as many, in fact). If you gave a test to two otherwise identical groups, one of which had more children with toothaches, wouldn’t you expect the healthier group to have higher average scores?

   Or consider asthma. Studies of black children in New York City and Chicago find that one-fourth suffer from asthma, a rate six times that for all children. The disease is provoked in part from breathing fumes from low-grade home heating oil and from diesel trucks and buses.8

   Asthma keeps children up at night and, if they make it to school, they are likely to be drowsy and inattentive. Middle-class children typically get asthma treatment; low-income children get it less often. Low-income children with asthma are about 80 percent more likely than middle-class children with asthma to miss more than seven days of school a year from the disease. No matter how good a school, if it has more asthmatic children it will have lower scores than others, other things being equal.

   Growing housing unaffordability for low-income families also affects learning. Children whose families can’t find stable housing change schools frequently. Teachers, no matter how well trained, can’t be as effective with children who move in and out of their classrooms. Black children are more than twice as likely as whites to have attended at least three different schools by the 3rd grade. If black children’s mobility were reduced to the rate of whites, part of the black-white gap would disappear from this change alone.9

— Excerpted from "Social Class Leaves Its Imprint," by Richard Rothstein, Education Week, May 19, 2004.


The continuing saga of the role asthma plays in the urban classroom was further explored by The Times' Samuel G. Freedman in his education column of June 30, 2004,10 where he examined its impact on a Baltimore elementary school. While the national childhood asthma rate is 7 percent, it triples that in the Baltimore area studied. The school in question has 500 students, nearly 100 of which have asthma. As the principal explained, "If a child is having trouble breathing, then he most certainly is having trouble learning. Either he's struggling to concentrate in class or he's out sick." In either case, the urban child is too often "gasping" to catch up.

The simple-minded solution to the achievement gap is to think the American classroom can solve all of the above issues (Test them and they will overcome), that the achievement gap can be overcome if the students are given the government approved reading programs and are subjected to higher standards, and the district hires only approved teachers. All of this is floated under the threat that parents will be allowed to remove their children from a school making "inadequate progress" and send them to successful schools. The thousands of New York and Chicago families in such circumstances found there was "no room in the education inn" — the successful schools were filled to the brim. Chicago's public schools in 2004 had 175,000 students attending "failing" schools, each child thus eligible for transfer to a succeeding school. Unfortunately, only 500 seats were available in those schools for the 175,000.11

  In 2008, the Center for New York City Affairs, part of The New School, issued its report, “Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families,”12 finding that 20 percent of New York City's students are absent annually at least one full month of classes. As grade levels rose, the absentee rate increased as well: 24 percent of middle schoolers and 40 percent of high schoolers missed 30 days a year. Furthermore, there was a direct correlation between absenteeism and family income: the poorer the family, the more school days missed by the family's children.

Back in 1992, the Center for Information Policy at ETS ({Princeton, NJ) made nearly identical findings in its landmark report America's Smallest School: The Family,13 including the correlation between absenteeism and student math scores.

Simply put, in order to fill a car's gas tank, you have to go to the filling station. In order to adequately fill a child's brain, you have to go to the filling station called "school." "Fixing" the school doesn't meant the family or home is fixed and absenteeism is determined by the family.

Charter schools no panacea

Government conservatives find the ultimate panacea for all of this in the Charter School movement that would bring free market strategies to public education. For more than a decade, proponents have promoted it and built NCLB around its principles. And how has that worked out? In August, 2004, the first massive comparison of "public versus charter" scores was unearthed from documents buried by the Department of Education and published on Page 1 of The New York Times. It appears that once again, the government's idea of what works doesn't work:

Charter Schools Lagging
Behind, U.S. Data Reveal

WASHINGTON, Aug. 16 - The first national comparison of test scores among children in charter schools and regular public schools shows charter school students often doing worse than comparable students in regular public schools.
    The findings, buried in mountains of data the Education Department released without public announcement, dealt a blow to supporters of the charter school movement, including the Bush administration.
    The data shows fourth graders attending charter schools performing about half a year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math. Put another way, only 25 percent of the fourth graders attending charters were proficient in reading and math, against 30 percent who were proficient in reading, and 32 percent in math, at traditional public schools.
    Because charter schools are concentrated in cities, often in poor neighborhoods, the researchers also compared urban charters to traditional schools in cities. They looked at low-income children in both settings, and broke down the results by race and ethnicity as well. In virtually all instances, the charter students did worse than their counterparts in regular public schools.
    "The scores are low, dismayingly low," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a supporter of charters and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who was among those who asked the administration to do the comparison.

—Excerpted from "Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Data Reveal,"
by Diana Jean Schemo, The New York Times,
p. 1, A16, August, 17, 2004

The Harlem Solution

Since the Charter School concept hasn't even remotely accomplished its goal, the more complex and realistic solution would be to work on the social issues that are the root cause of nearly all the problems, something that would require an effort on the scale of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society/War on Poverty. At a time when conservative lawmakers feel that throwing money at schools is a waste, the chances of a new war on poverty are slim to none, as are chances of solving the problems with legislation like No Child Left Behind.

Geoffrey Canada   Rather than focus on a entire urban school district, Geoffrey Canada decided to aim at a 24-square block (60 blocks altogether, 6,500 children) of Harlem in New York City. He also knew the near hopelessness of remediating only the children, so he also started "Baby College" to teach at-risk families the essential parenting skills. In other words, the reach of his "24-Square Block Solution" spans from parent to child, from preschool to high school, from in-school to after-school. Listen as he explains a program that mimics the African adage: "It takes an entire neighborhood (village) to raise a child." (Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, July 21, 2004) See also "The Harlem Project," The New York Times Magazine, June 20, 2004, pp. 44-49; also: Charlie Rose TV show, Jan. 2, 2008, conversation with Geoffrey Canada, avalable online at:


Nothing demonstrates the unevenness of the "playing field" in American schools better than two successive days in 2004 when Jim Trelease presented lectures to students in two Tennessee high schools: one suburban and one urban. For a description of the differences, see Two Districts here.

'But look at India's track record . . .'

The proliferation of high-achieving students and executives from India who are now winning scholarships and business contracts here in the U.S. has led many Americans to mistakenly believe that India is educating everyone, including its poor, who number in the tens of millions. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The weight of poverty works the same way there as here — just like gravity. Here are the opening paragraphs from a New York Times piece on Indian education.

"Education Push Yields Little for India’s Poor"

Excerpted from The New York Times, Jan. 17, 2008

LAHTORA, India — With the dew just rising from the fields, dozens of children streamed into the two-room school in this small, poor village, tucking used rice sacks under their arms to use as makeshift chairs. So many children streamed in that the newly appointed head teacher, Rashid Hassan, pored through attendance books for the first two hours of class and complained bitterly. He had no idea who belonged in which grade. There was no way he could teach.

Another teacher arrived 90 minutes late. A third did not show up. The most senior teacher, the only one with a teaching degree, was believed to be on official government duty preparing voter registration cards. No one could quite recall when he had last taught.

“When they get older, they’ll curse their teachers,” said Arnab Ghosh, 26, a social worker trying to help the government improve its schools, as he stared at clusters of children sitting on the grass outside. “They’ll say, ‘We came every day and we learned nothing.’ ”

Sixty years after independence, with 40 percent of its population under 18, India is now confronting the perils of its failure to educate its citizens, notably the poor. More Indian children are in school than ever before, but the quality of public schools like this one has sunk to spectacularly low levels, as government schools have become reserves of children at the very bottom of India’s social ladder.

The children in this school come from the poorest of families — those who cannot afford to send away their young to private schools elsewhere, as do most Indian families with any means.

The entire article can be found at:



  1. "Total Poverty Awareness," by David K. Shipler, The New York Times, Op-ed page, Feb. 21, 2004. Shipler is the author of a highly acclaimed book on poverty, The Working Poor: Invisible in America.
  2. "Parsing the Achievement Gap: Baselines for Tracking Progress," by Paul Barton (Policy Information Center, ETS, 2003.
  3. "L.A. Preschool Effort Preparing for 2004 Launch," by Linda Jacobson, Education Week, May 14, 2003, p. 9.
  4. Living at the Edge: Low Income and the Development of America's Kindergartners by Elizabeth Gershoff, Nov. 2003; related study: "An Uneven Start: Indicators of Inequality in School Readiness" by Richard J. Coley (ETS) , an analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 and the social/academic divisions found at the very start of school.
  5. Mayer, D. P.; Mullens, J. E.; & Moore, M. T. (2000). "Monitoring school quality: An indicators report" (NCES 2001-030). Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
  6. "Low Scores, High Enrollment and a Constantly Changing Blur of a Picture," by Patricia Leigh Brown, The New York Times, May 31, 2004, p. A14.
  7. "The American Dilemma Continues," by Sheryll Cashin, Education Week, May 19, 2004.
  8. Pertaining to asthma and its impact on children, you can listen (or obtain transcripts) of NPR's report: Understanding a Childhood Asthma Epidemic: Two-Decade Rise Tied to Stress, Poverty, Mental Health, which includes the following facts:
    • Asthma affects around 6.3 million U.S. kids, with numbers rising most rapidly among pre-schoolers;
    • Each year, asthma accounts for 14 million missed school days in the United States;
    • U.S. asthma rates for African-American and Hispanic children are 30-percent to 100-percent higher than for white children;
    • Asthma is the third-ranking cause of hospitalization among U.S. children younger than 15 years of age.
    The above links also includes a link to an interview with Dr. Rosalind Wright explaining the connections between stress, poverty and asthma. Related story: Tavis Smiley Show on asthma (African Americans are three times more likely than whites to die from asthma).
  9. "Social Class Leaves Its Imprint," by Richard Rothstein, Education Week, May 19, 2004.
  10. "Beyond Public Health, Asthma, Like Poor Housing, Becomes an Issue in the School," by Samuel G. Freedman, The New York Times, June 30, 2004, p. A20.
  11. "Chicago Data Suggest Transfer Students Gain," by Erik W. Robelen, Education Week, p. 6, May 5, 2004.
  12. “Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families,” Center for New York City Affairs, The New School. Also: "Report Details Chronic Absenteeism in City Schools, by Jennifer Medina, The New York Times, Oct. 21, 2008, p. 21,
  13. America’s Smallest School: The Family, Policy Information Center, Educational Testing Service (ETS), p. 31 (Princeton, NJ—1992)

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