Blame for School Achievement Gap Misplaced
March 9, 2009

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

Contact: Teri Battaglieri – (517) 203-2940;
    David Berliner – (480) 861-0484;

EAST LANSING, Mich., (March 9, 2009) – 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.

“Schools are told to fix problems that largely lie outside their zone of influence,” 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.

Berliner’s 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 “adequate yearly progress” 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 NCLB’s accountability system is “fatally flawed” because it holds schools accountable for student achievement without regard for the out-of-school factors that affect it.

“This report provides exactly the type of information that should guide education policy,” says Teri Battaglieri, Director of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. “It 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.”

Berliner’s 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 “increased spending on schools, as beneficial as that might be, will probably come up short in closing the gaps.” Instead, he calls for an approach to school improvement that would demand “a reasonable level of societal accountability for children’s physical and mental health and safety.”

“At that point,” he concludes, “maybe we can sensibly and productively demand that schools be accountable for comparable levels of academic achievement for all America’s children.”

Find David Berliner’s report, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, on the Web at:


The mission of the Great Lakes Center is to improve public education for all students in the Great Lakes region through the support and dissemination of high quality, academically sound research on education policy and practices.

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