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Researchers Target Poverty as Key Barrier to Closing U.S. Education Gap

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Published: 11/15/2008 7:29:00 PM

To overcome its education achievement gap, America must institute a comprehensive program of educational and social services to address the broad effects of poverty on millions of the nation’s schoolchildren, according to researchers, elected officials and school and community leaders who will present new findings and perspectives on November 17th and 18th at a symposium at Teachers College. 

Such a program could be delivered to 1 million students from families whose incomes fall within 75 percent to 125 percent of the federal poverty line at an approximate cost of $15,000 per student, according to a paper to be presented at the symposium by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute. The program would include not only effective teaching, smaller class sizes and adequate classroom supplies, but also a full array of out-of-school assistance from in utero through age 18, including prenatal care, after-school tutoring, health care, nutrition and physical education, and family support.   

The up-front investment required to take such programs from pilots to policy would be significantly offset by maximizing the impact of current spending. For example, according to a paper to be presented at the symposium by The Finance Project, allocated an estimated $61.9 billion in federal, state and local funding in fiscal year 2007-08 to programs serving children ages birth to 18 in all the categories outlined by Rothstein. This preliminary total does not include all current expenditures in these areas by and other localities and, by private groups.  The $15,000 per-student investment would also be recouped through subsequent reductions in costs for special education and compensatory educational services for older students and savings from the reduction in costs in health care, crime, and welfare that are associated with poorer educational outcomes and the increases in worker productivity and tax revenue associated with improved educational outcomes.

Other papers to be delivered at the symposium, which is titled “Comprehensive Educational Equity: Overcoming the Socioeconomic Barriers to School Success,” include the following findings, gathered both from original research and reviews of existing studies:

The symposium - the fourth such event held annually by Teachers College’s Campaign for Education Equity, -- will be held in the College’s , from 9 am to 5 pm each day.  Speakers, both live and taped, include Governor David Paterson; former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who oversaw a comprehensive overhaul of his nation’s education system; Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers; Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone; Arne Duncan, Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools; Carl Hayden, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York; and Paul Tough, staff editor at the New York Times Magazine.

“The frank reality is that unless we confront the poverty factors that substantially undermine the learning potential of a growing proportion of our public school students, current achievement gaps cannot be overcome, and the national need to ensure that all students attain challenging proficiency levels will never be realized,” writes Michael A. Rebell, executive director of The Campaign for Educational Equity. Based on the premise that social reform in the United States is most effectively accomplished through the assertion of “rights,” Rebell, the attorney who led the successful lawsuit to add billions of dollars in state funding to New York City’s public school budget, has developed a framework for understanding children’s need for comprehensive services as a moral, statutory and constitutional right. Under Rebell’s plan, the rights perspective would not necessarily be used not to initiate litigation, but to spearhead a legislative campaign to provide necessary comprehensive resources and services on a stable, statutory basis to all children in New York State who require them.

Still other work presented at the symposium will analyze existing comprehensive education programs, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Chemung County School Readiness Project, and the Chicago Community Schools Project, exploring ways to move such efforts to national scale.  That goal has been formally articulated by President-elect Barack Obama, who promised during the recent election campaign to create 20 organizations nationally modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone.

 The full agenda for “Comprehensive Education Equity:  Overcoming the Socioeconomic Barriers to School Success” is available at