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Lessons—Seeing Achievement Gains By an Attack on Poverty

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON MARCH 7, 2001 ]

Seeing Achievement Gains By an Attack on Poverty

By  Richard Rothstein

A Senate committee began considering President Bush’s education plan yesterday. The president wants new spending of $25 billion over five years, a total of about $500 per pupil over current annual levels. Democrats want even more, $35 billion.

This is a lot of money, much of it to raise poor children’s scores. It may work. But if social disadvantage breeds low achievement, could we raise performance as effectively by alleviating poverty itself?

It might be easier than it appears.

School programs alone have not closed the achievement gap between poor and middle-class children, so other approaches are certainly worth a try.

The surgeon general, David Satcher, reported last May that more than a third of poor children have untreated dental cavities. Pupils taking tests with toothaches are unlikely to score as well as those undistracted by pain.

Offering school-based dental services is relatively inexpensive. Columbia University’s School of Dentistry runs clinics at schools in Harlem and Washington Heights; the assistant dean, Stephen Marshall, estimates a clinic costs about $175 per pupil.

So to free poor children from taking tests while distracted by toothaches would cost less than $2 billion. We might get a bigger score bounce from such spending than from educational programs costing far more.

Alleviating lead poisoning is even less expensive. Toddlers who breathe dust or eat flakes from lead- based paint have impaired cognitive abilities. The paint was banned for interior use in 1978, but many children live in structures built earlier. Lead can permeate environments of poor families because their apartments are repainted less often, so older layers of paint are exposed.

The General Accounting Office says about 10 percent of poor children have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, likely to “cause reductions in I.Q. and attention span, reading and learning disabilities, hyperactivity and behavioral problems.”

  Yet fewer than one in five children in low-income families  have been screened for lead. Despite federal rules, many states do not cover screening under Medicaid. By enforcing this regulation, Mr. Bush might get an academic score jump.

In St. Louis, the Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Centers recently began testing children for lead. It sends health coaches to homes of children with high lead levels. These aides help cover peeling window sills with plastic and bring vacuum cleaners with filters that are more effective than common household models.

If these services were sponsored by schools in poor communities (and extended to preschoolers and pregnant women) it would add about $75 per pupil to district budgets, according to calculations of Richard K. Gram, Grace Hill’s director. The national cost of this program would be less than $1 billion. Test scores might rise as lead levels fell.

Other programs could also address social and economic  causes of low achievement. Some solutions need even fewer dollars than battling toothaches or lead poisoning.

Teenage smoking, for example, rose in the 1990’s so children will continue to be born to young women who smoke while pregnant. Medical researchers have related such smoking to a 4-point loss in children’s I.Q.; it may also add to mental retardation cases needing special education.

Anti-smoking efforts, including counseling and making tobacco less available to youths, are known to work. Smoking by older pregnant women fell in the last decade so a special focus on teenage smoking may be more cost effective than academic programs in raising scores of the following generation .

There are also more expensive approaches to consider. Pupil transiency stemming from poor housing is an important cause of low scores. In the midst of a national urban housing crisis, keeping children in the same classrooms by stabilizing their families’ housing would be costly — but less so when we consider what is now spent in schools, often fruitlessly, to compensate for mobility.

Somehow, both Republicans and Democrats have become convinced that schools can be immune to social environments. To make poor children academically proficient, we think only to raise standards, create sanctions for failure, and perhaps provide better teachers, smaller classes or more school time.

These reforms may work. But it is curious that, when we see poor children with lower test scores, we fail to consider if improving conditions of poverty, sometimes at relatively little cost, might also have an impact.

Correction, published March 22, 2001:

The Lessons column on March 7 about nonacademic steps to improve achievement among low-income students referred imprecisely to efforts by health centers in St. Louis to minimize lead poisoning. The centers have been testing children for lead for years, not just recently. Their aides have recently started visiting homes of children with high lead levels to reduce contact with lead from sources like peeling window sills.

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