Equity & Diversity

No Easy Answers About NCLB’s Effect on ‘Poverty Gap’

By Debra Viadero — November 08, 2007 7 min read
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Reasons exist to believe that the federal No Child Left Behind Act could shrink the “poverty gap” that finds students from poor families trailing behind their better-off peers in school. For one, by requiring schools to improve test scores each year for specific subgroups of students, such as those from lowincome families, as well as for everyone else, the law shines a spotlight on social inequalities that might once have been masked.

But reasons also exist to believe that the sweeping federal law could negatively affect schooling outcomes for children from the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Under the penalties embedded in the measure, for instance, struggling schools that serve predominantly poor student populations are the very schools most likely to suffer from a drain on resources as families take advantage of the tutoring or school choice options that the law provides.

To sort out the potential effects of the NCLB law’s various provisions on this vulnerable population, a group of researchers last month unveiled a volume of studies on the topic. Published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, the new research collection takes many of its cues from the movement for standardsbased school reform that swept the country in the 1990s, predating the No Child Left Behind Act, which turns 6 in January.

Like the federal law, most of those state-level testing and accountability programs also required schools to assess student progress and provided rewards and penalties based on the results.

The research also examines some very early results on the implementation of the NCLB law and makes recommendations for improving it. The resulting findings, like the law itself, are complex.

Ineffective Tutoring

“The basic findings are there have been some improvements in quality, and that some things that people were afraid would happen didn’t happen,” said Adam Gamoran, a professor of sociology and education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the director of the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, located there. He edited the book, which grew out of a conference the university held 18 months ago.

Teacher-Quality Indicators

Researchers examined how several teacher-quality indicators changed in states in the years immediately after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in January 2002.


Note: Only 40 states had data in 2000.
SOURCE: Standards-Based Reform and the Poverty Gap

“But you also find,” Mr. Gamoran continued, “that the law is being implemented so weakly and inconsistently that you’re going to need a big improvement in implementation if you’re going to get anywhere near the kind of improvements that are demanded by NCLB.”

A case in point, in Mr. Gamoran’s view, has been the implementation of its tutoring provisions. Under the NCLB law, schools that receive money under the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students must offer supplemental educational services if they fail to meet student-performance targets for three or more years in a row.

George Farkas, the scholar at Pennsylvania State University in University Park who wrote the chapter on tutoring for the Brookings volume, said large-scale tutoring could be a particularly promising strategy for raising achievement.

Yet evaluations conducted so far of the law’s tutoring provisions suggest that the program, which only began to kick in over the past two years, is reaching just a fifth of eligible students and producing learning gains that are small or nonexistent. One possible reason, Mr. Farkas concludes in his analysis of those studies, is that few providers are offering the kind of sustained, one-to-one instruction that’s needed to get underachieving, low-income students up to grade level.

“What happens now is too little, too late,” Mr. Farkas, a professor of sociology, demography, and education, said in an interview. “You get a kid that’s behind, and you get him in the afternoon when he can’t come all the time. You have him in a group of five, and give them all lessons at $30 an hour, and they get about 40 hours of lessons before they disappear.”

Mr. Farkas, who helped develop the America Reads tutoring program launched under the Clinton administration, said his own experiences suggest that students need at least 100 individual lessons, at 40 minutes each, to get a grade-level-size boost.

Teacher Quality a Wash

In gauging how standards-based reform affects issues related to teacher quality, though, researcher Meredith Phillips had a much longer track record to examine. She analyzed national data from teacher surveys taken from 1993 to 2000 to determine how teachers’ and administrators’ behavior changed when states ratcheted up their programs of academic standards and testing.

“I expected to find that low-income, high-minority schools would bear the brunt of [the law’s impact], and that teacher quality would decline in those schools,” said Ms. Phillips, an associate professor of sociology and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. She thought the added pressure to boost scores might drive teachers away from already tough-to-teach students and schools.

It didn’t, as far as she could tell. While teachers in disadvantaged schools felt they had less autonomy in curricula and teaching methods than did their counterparts in nonpoor, mostly white schools, they also received more hours of professional development about assessment. And on most of the measures of teacher quality Ms. Phillips used, no changes took place in the disadvantaged schools after their states introduced new testing programs, suggesting that teachers were not fleeing in droves. Teachers also reported spending slightly more time on school-related activities outside school—seemingly a plus for students.

Overall, the study also found that administrators reduced class sizes after states introduced the tougher testing and accountability systems, but usually in the grades being tested. Some evidence also turned up that administrators may have moved more-experienced teachers to those target grades.

“We need to make sure we’re incentivizing policies we actually want,” Ms. Phillips cautioned.

For her chapter on teacherquality changes, Laura M. Desimone, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, focused on 2000 to 2003, the period leading to and immediately following enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Under the federal law, states originally had until the end of the 2005-06 school year to ensure that they were staffing core academic classes with teachers who held bachelor’s degrees, were fully certified, and could demonstrate mastery of the subjects they were teaching through coursework in those subjects, passing tests, or meeting other criteria set by the state. That deadline was extended for states showing “good faith” efforts to comply with the provision.

Ms. Desimone and her research partners used survey data drawn from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics to see if those provisions were beginning to make a difference for disadvantaged students.

The short answer was no. Gaps in teacher quality in schools attended by disadvantaged students and those attended by children from wealthier families remained large, as did the gaps between poor and nonpoor students within the same schools.

Fairness in Retentions

Some NCLB-related state policies, however, did seem to be working in the right direction. In states that publicly identified low-performing schools or assigned ratings to schools, the widening gaps that were expected to occur as populations of disadvantaged students increased never materialized.

“Our analysis provides limited evidence that particular state policies may eventually move states in the right direction, but it raises concern that results may not be substantial enough, or fast enough, to satisfy the legislation or our own ideals about equality in teacher quality,” the authors write.

Other chapters look beyond specific provisions of the law to explore potential unintended consequences of it or of the standards-based reform movement that preceded it.

In their chapter, Robert M. Hauser, a research professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, and his co-authors used U.S. Census Bureau data to track grade-retention rates for students from 1996 to 2005. They found rates overall rose over that period, just as they had since the 1970s. The advent of the NCLB law did not accelerate that trend, as some critics had predicted. The data also revealed that most of those increases, particularly in the later years of the study period, occurred in kindergarten and 1st grade.

Another curious trend, though, was that student retentions in their current grades became more equitable over the study period, as the link between being poor and the likelihood of having to repeat a grade declined. One possible reason: Educators may have begun basing promotion decisions on more objective measures, such as test scores. But the trend halted temporarily in 2004, when a spike occurred in the number of low-income children held back in school; the trend then returned to pre- NCLB levels the following year. Researchers were hard-pressed to say whether the jump was an aberration or a direct result of the law.

“This provides further evidence that our worst fears regarding NCLB haven’t materialized, but it’s also very nuanced,” said Kerstin Carlson LeFloch, a principal research analyst for the Washingtonbased American Institutes for Research and the director of a federal study tracking states’ implementation of the federal law. She was not a part of the Brookings studies.

“Maybe where we are in NCLB implementation,” she added, “is that we’re not ready to have huge statements about what’s working and what’s not.”

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as No Easy Answers About NCLB’s Effect on ‘Poverty Gap’


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