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Closing the Achievement Gap: Schools Alone Cannot Succeed

by Denise Gelberg - April 10, 2008

The author relies on years of classroom experience as well as data on the health and well-being of the nationís children to make the case that schools alone cannot address the gap in achievement between economically advantaged and disadvantaged youngsters. The author argues that a large and growing minority of children in this country are living in precarious conditions. These conditions must be addressed if the achievement gap is to be closed.

In my thirty years of teaching youngsters in grades K-3, I found that there were two conditions that presented huge hurdles for children in their school careers: a serious learning disability, and childhood poverty. Fortunately, I found the former handicap relatively rare – and often surmountable with family support and good teaching. To my great chagrin, the latter condition – childhood poverty – afflicted a far larger proportion of the student population. And, despite my best efforts, I found it was nearly impossible to serve as an enduring counterweight to the grave circumstances in which these children were growing up – poor housing, nutrition, health care, an unsafe neighborhood and, with increasing frequency, involvement with the criminal justice system by their parents and older siblings. Although these youngsters very often did well in my class, leaving at or near “grade level” by all indicators, their success was generally not sustained in subsequent years. This phenomenon is not unique to my experience (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007).1

Consider this: 41% - nearly 30 million - of our school age children are living at or below 200% of the poverty rate, i.e, $40,000 in 2003 for a family of four. And nearly 13 million of those children live below the poverty line. Anyone who has managed a family budget knows that income affects nearly every aspect of everyday life. It makes it either easier or more difficult to meet the responsibilities of caring for ourselves and our dependents. But beyond the obvious role income plays in family health, the U.S. Census Bureau has documented some less obvious conditions related to a lack of financial resources. The children who grow up in poor families tend to be read to less, have fewer controls on their television watching, have more meals alone, and receive praise less frequently from their parents. These children are less likely to participate in sports, clubs or lessons. They are more likely to live in neighborhoods where they cannot safely go out to play. They are more likely to have parents who are uneducated and never married. And, of critical importance to their futures, these children are less likely to be on track academically than their more advantaged peers (Dye & Johnson, 2007). To those who have taught for any length of time, none of these facts will be a revelation. They are merely representative of the conditions in which too many of their students are growing up.

Here are some data to mull over: The employment rate of black men fell 17.9% from 1980 to 2000. For black, male high school dropouts the decline was 30%. Only 42.1% of men in this group were employed in 2000. For some historical perspective, in 1960 the rate of employment for black male dropouts was close to 80%. The decline in black male labor market participation has been accompanied by an increase in incarceration rates. In 1980 less than 1% of black males were incarcerated. That figure jumped to 9.6% by the year 2000. For high school dropouts that figure was an alarming 21.2% (Borjas, Grogger, & Hanson, 2007).

Black male workers are an egregious example of the economic distress which many American workers are experiencing. Over the last twenty years, employment dropped and incarceration rates rose for uneducated white males just as it did for uneducated black males, albeit at a lesser rate. Inflation adjusted incomes of the overwhelming majority of the nation’s workers have either stagnated or fallen from 2000 to 2005, continuing a trend begun in the early 1970s. Only the top 5% of earners have escaped this income stagnation. Nearly half of Americans reported incomes of less than $30,000 in 2005 (Johnston, 2007).  And, to add another disturbing indicator to these economic facts, four in ten babies born in the United States in 2005 were born to single mothers (Rosenberg & Wingert, 2006).

Children are dependent on the resources of their caregivers for their own health and welfare. The above figures sketch the outlines of the picture of child health and welfare in our country, and it is not a pretty one. In a 2007 UNICEF study of child well-being in rich countries, the United States ranked 20th of the 21 nations evaluated. The study rated material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, family and peer relationships, behaviors that contribute to health, and risks from violence. It is interesting to note that “educational well-being” was the only category in which the United States rose above the bottom third in this comparison of wealthy nations (UNICEF, 2007).2

It is striking that this poor showing in an international study of child well-being received little or no media attention, while the international comparison of our children’s test scores has been covered to such a degree that it is now commonly accepted - and bemoaned - by the general populace. And, it is this more publicized comparison that has led to calls for a massive overhaul of our schools. Poor showings on international test comparisons have fueled the economic imperative argument, i.e., our children are falling behind and, as future workers, will not provide the skilled human resources needed for us to compete in the global economy. This point has become the driving force behind much of the contemporary reform effort. Business leaders in particular argue that children from all groups in society must be prepared to think critically so they may become “knowledge workers.” They put forth this argument despite the fact that our economy is producing low skilled, low paying jobs at a far greater rate than it is producing the oft-mentioned highly skilled “knowledge work.”3

The ostensible impetus behind the No Child Left Behind legislation is to address the achievement gap between healthy, white, native born, middle class children and children who do not fall into that category.  Black children, Hispanic children, children who do not speak English as their first language, children with a handicapping condition, children living in poverty - all children - must be “proficient” in reading and math by the year 2014. Upon passage of the legislation in 2002, anyone who questioned the feasibility of closing the gap in achievement between advantaged children and all others was said to be guilty of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” by President Bush.

However, by 2007, commentators from the left and the right acknowledged that the goal of universal proficiency was unattainable. Frederick Hess and Chester Finn, early supporters of NCLB, expressed that point in an article outlining their suggestions for its reauthorization:

While nobody doubts that the number of “proficient” students should increase dramatically from today’s woeful level, no educator believes that universal proficiency in 2014 is attainable. Only politicians promise such things. It’s as if Congress opted to fight crime by declaring that all cities will be crime free by 2014 (Hess & Finn, 2007).

Like crime, the problem of low achievement among our neediest students is caused by a constellation of factors. It is not possible to decouple children’s educational well-being from their overall well-being. Any remedy requires an attack on all fronts, i.e., on the totality of circumstances that make school success elusive for so many youngsters.

Take, for example, employment. With the exception of heirs and lottery winners, good employment is a prerequisite for a decent family life in our society. Let us think back to the rate of employment for black men – who traditionally would be considered the “head of household.” With wages stagnant or falling, and employment rates dropping precipitously for low-skilled black men, what can these fathers offer their children? Couple the decline in labor market participation with the rapid increase in the incarceration rates for poorly educated black men, and we can see that their children are at a tremendous disadvantage in comparison with children of fathers who are well employed and living with their children.

Americans like to believe that ours is a land of opportunity, where hard working people can rise through economic strata regardless of their origins. However, the data contradict the notion that ours is an exceptionally mobile society. The fact is there is more economic mobility in Sweden than there is in the United States. Only South Africa and Britain have as little cross-generational mobility as the United States. Princeton economist Alan Krueger points out the effect of a father’s income on his children’s future earnings is strong – both in wealthy and poor families. He and others studying economic mobility have found that it takes, on average, five or six generations to erase the advantages or disadvantages of one’s economic origins. And, the economic relationship between fathers and their progeny has only strengthened in the last decades (Krueger, 2002).

We have a chicken and egg situation. Poverty is highly correlated with school failure, and school failure is a strong predictor of economic difficulties. People who do not do well in the labor market may turn to criminal activity as an alternative to gainful employment (Borjas, Grogger, & Hanson, 2007). The children who are raised in a milieu of economic failure desperately need to surpass the educational attainment of their parents. But, as educators who work daily with these children know, many hurdles exist over which only the strongest among them may triumph.

We could despair, and yet – for both moral and practical reasons - that is not an option. Minority children now make up 42% of public school enrollment – up from 22% three decades ago. Many minority youngsters live either in or at the margins of poverty. These children deserve not only the very best education possible, but also childhoods that allow them take advantage of the opportunities a good education offers. As a society, we must address the needs both of “the chicken and the egg.” It is imperative that we in education make a Herculean effort to use everything we know about how children learn, about effective organizational structures, and efficient use of resources to give all of our children an excellent pre-K through12 educational experience. But if those efforts take place in a vacuum, they will succeed for only those few hardy, resilient souls who are able to survive and even thrive under the harshest life conditions.

For educators to have the most success in their efforts, they must be matched by those of other segments of our society. As Alan Krueger points out, well-designed societal interventions can interrupt the strong cross-generational correlation of income. He gives the elimination of apartheid in South Africa as an example of how society can reorganize to reduce the “inheritability” of economic class. Here in the United States we, too, must reorganize; to address not only the educational needs of our youngsters, but their overall well-being as well.  To that end, we need to concentrate first and foremost on the unit in society that has the greatest effect on our youngest citizens: the family. Our efforts should focus on making family life viable, so that parents and guardians can raise their youngsters in a safe, healthful, and hopeful way.

There is a role to play in this effort by many sectors of society: government, the private sector, unions, and religious institutions. I call particularly on the leaders of corporate America – which has been so critical of the public schools – to join in the work to better the lives, as well as the education of our youngsters. Corporations are uniquely positioned to facilitate this effort. Their profits in this decade have been at forty-year highs, leading this period to be referred to as “the golden era of profitability.” At the same time, and for the first time since World War II, sustained economic growth and continual increases in worker productivity have not led to a prolonged increase in real wages for workers (Greenhouse & Leonhardt, 2006). It is within the power of our most successful businesses to make a critical contribution to the well-being of the nation’s children by making a commitment to offer secure, family-friendly employment that pays a living wage to their parents. I ask that business leaders become true partners with educators by making life less difficult for our nation’s children and their caregivers. That might have the most potent effect on the “achievement gap” of any effort heretofore.


1. A longitudinal study done in Baltimore by Johns Hopkins researchers concluded that the high SES-low SES achievement gap could be primarily traced back to differential summer learning over the elementary years.  Early out-of-school summer learning differences substantially accounted for later achievement related differences by family SES in: 1) high school track placements, 2) high school completion, and 3) four year college attendance.

2. The United States placed 12th of the 21 wealthy countries studied on the dimension of educational well-being.

3. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that “retail salespersons” is the fastest growing occupation projected out to the year 2014.   Seven of the top ten fastest growth occupations require no post-secondary education and pay low or very low wages as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The six other low-skilled jobs in the top ten are: customer service representatives, janitors/maids, waiters/waitresses, food service, home health aides, and hospital aides/orderlies.


Alexander, K., Entwisle, D., & Olson, L.S.  (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review 72(2), 167-180.

Borjas, G., Grogger, J., & Hanson, G. (2007). Immigration and African-American employment opportunities: The response of wages, employment, and incarceration to labor supply shocks. Unpublished paper presented at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, August 27, 2007.

Dillon, S. (2007, June 1). U.S. shows rapid minority growth in school rolls. The New York Times.

Dye, J. L. & Johnson, T. (2007). A Child’s Day – Current Population Reports.  Washington: U.S. Census Bureau.

Greenhouse, S. & Leonhardt, D. (2006, August 28). Real wages fail to match a rise in productivity.  New York Times.

Hess, F. & Finn, C. (2007). Extreme makeover: NCLB edition. Teachers College Record. August 16. Retrieved August 30, 2007 from http://www.tcrecord.org

Johnston, D. (2007, August 21). Average incomes fell for most in 2000-2005. The New York Times.

Krueger, A. (2002, November 14). Economic scene: The apple falls close to the tree, even in the land of opportunity.  The New York Times.

Rosenberg, D. &Wingert, P.  (2006, December 4). First comes junior in a baby carriage. Newsweek , 56-57.

UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. (2007). Child Poverty in Perspective:  An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries. Report Card 7.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 10, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15204, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:55:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Denise Gelberg
    Ithaca City Schools
    E-mail Author
    DENISE GELBERG holds a doctorate in labor relations in education from Cornell University. Her book, The "Business" of Reforming American Schools was published by SUNY Press in 1997.
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