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Blame for School Achievement Gap Misplaced

New policy report explains how poverty's effects are the real culprit

Contact: David Berliner -- (480) 861-0484;
Kevin Welner -- (303) 492-8370;

TEMPE, Ariz. and BOULDER, Colo., March 9, 2009 - A new report issues a fundamental challenge to established education policies that were promoted by the Bush administration and are likely to be continued by the Obama administration. These policies are based on a belief that public schools should shoulder the blame for the "achievement gap" between poor and minority students and the rest of the student population. But the new policy report argues that out-of-school factors are the real culprit--and that if those factors are not addressed, it will be impossible for schools to meet the demands made of them.

"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. The report is jointly published by the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) of ASU and the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Berliner's report comes as debate continues over the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act, which imposed 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.

"This report provides exactly the type of information that should guide policy," says EPIC director Kevin Welner of CU-Boulder. "It clearly and concisely explains why poverty must be directly addressed by anyone who hopes to close the achievement gap. Just as importantly, it explains why just tinkering with NCLB is a fool's errand."

Last week, Education Secretary Duncan told the Washington Post that those who would use the social ills of poor children as an excuse for not educating them "are part of the problem." Welner agrees. "But," he says, "those who point to schools as an excuse for failure to address social ills are equally at fault."

Berliner explains that NCLB "focuses almost exclusively on school outputs, particularly reading and mathematics achievement test scores." He says, "The law was purposely designed to pay little attention to school inputs in order to ensure that teachers and school administrators had 'no excuses' when it came to better educating impoverished youth."

Yet, as explained in the new report, that position is not merely unrealistic, but certain to fail. Berliner says that NCLB's accountability system is "fatally flawed" because it makes schools accountable for achievement without regard for out-of-school factors.

Berliner reviews a half-dozen 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. Additionally, he notes a seventh factor: extended learning opportunities in the form of summer programs, after-school programs, and pre-school 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 that Berliner identifies, "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:

David Berliner, Regents Professor of Education
Arizona State University
(480) 861-0484

Kevin Welner, Professor and Director
Education and the Public Interest Center
University of Colorado at Boulder
(303) 492-8370



The Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University collaborate to produce policy briefs and think tank reviews. Our goal is to promote well-informed democratic deliberation about education policy by providing academic as well as non-academic audiences with useful information and high quality analyses.

Visit EPIC and EPRU at

EPIC and EPRU are members of the Education Policy Alliance