Get Real

Here's the Boost That Poor Children, Their Teachers, and Their Schools Really Need

By the time children from low-income homes enter school, they are, on average, already far behind their middle-class peers. At the beginning of kindergarten, disadvantaged children are three times more likely than other children to score in the bottom quartile on assessments of reading, math, and general knowledge. In terms of specific skills, they are much less likely than their more advantaged peers to be able to identify the letters of the alphabet or to count beyond 10.1

But the actual challenge they face is even greater: The same home and community factors that lead to the school-entry achievement gap are at work over the summer. Middle- and upper-class children not only enter kindergarten knowing more, they continue learning more every summer.2 As a result, although the evidence indicates that in school, poor, middle-class, and wealthy children actually learn at about the same pace, by fourth grade, students from low-income families are nearly three grade levels below their peers in reading and about two grade levels below their peers in math.3

Think about that. On average, disadvantaged children make as much progress in school as their more middle-class peers. They are typically not behind because they have had worse teachers or attended worse schools, but because they entered school way behind. Unless these children are provided a much better-than-average, highly accelerated education, they will leave school behind, just as they entered. Simply legislating that they, and their teachers, make better-than-average progress won't change this reality. If we truly want to close the achievement gap, we have to find ways to make sure these children get a better-than-average education. They will need more, and they will need better: time, teachers, effective methods—the best we have to offer.

Meeting the challenge is partly going to be the work of the educational research community, who must continue to find more effective approaches to teaching and schooling. And, an important part of the answer is to be found outside the schools,4 in better healthcare, nutrition, and housing, and in community-based initiatives to enhance parenting skills.

But even as educational researchers try to find better answers and as we all push for more equity in social policy, there is an enormous amount that we can do now. Much trustworthy research has already identified five essential steps we should take: 1) Focus on teaching quality, and in particular, create the conditions and incentives that would stem the exodus of teachers from high-poverty schools and attract qualified teachers to them; 2) Improve student behavior by using effective approaches in the earliest grades to establish a positive, respectful school culture; 3) Diagnose reading problems early and intervene right away; 4) Provide a knowledge-rich, grade-by-grade core curriculum; and 5) Make sure that the schools that serve the neediest students get the extra attention, expertise, staff, time, and resources they need to meet the greater challenges they face.

1. Focus on teaching quality: Right now, high-poverty, low-achieving schools across the country are losing good teachers.5 We know from survey data that teachers leave these schools at higher rates than they leave other schools because of such issues as poor school leadership, inadequate support for kids who need it, severe problems with student discipline, inadequate facilities, etc.6 In short, they leave because the conditions make it impossible for them to do the job they want to do.7 This turnover typically means a less cohesive and a less experienced staff. How can we stem this turnover? What would attract teachers to the great challenge of teaching in these schools?

Certainly a substantial salary increase would be part of any solution. But, survey data as well as conversations with scores of teachers make it clear that increased pay alone will not suffice.8 Teachers are more likely to come and stay if the school is known to have an effective principal, good facilities, exciting opportunities for professional development and collaboration, a voice in decision-making, and the staff and resources to quickly and effectively provide the one-on-one and small group work necessary to help struggling students. In addition to these basics, what's necessary to attract teachers to a district's toughest schools inevitably varies from district to district. In some cases, the most appealing incentives might also include tuition reimbursement and assistance with reaching out to parents; in others, pension credits and opportunities to transfer as a group along with other qualified colleagues would work. Who knows best what will work? Teachers in the district. So, the best incentives will be those that are negotiated between the teachers union that knows its members and the district. In the ABC school district in southern California, the negotiated contract provides $5,000 to new hires, which can be used to defray the high housing and transportation costs that come with teaching there, and entry salaries that are in the area's top quartile. Today, there are no "hard-to-staff" schools in ABC. Federal and state funds can support such district/union efforts.

It's also important to identify and attract a good number of highly skilled teachers to these schools. The wrong way to identify such teachers (or conversely, to identify weak teachers) is solely through the narrow lens of student test scores. Testing technology is simply not sophisticated enough to be used that way. Imagine, for example, if the medical profession just looked at raw morbidity and mortality data when determining whether or not surgeons are effective. Surgeons that take the toughest cases would likely be accused of being ineffective, and many would avoid such work. As a result, patients in need of very complicated surgery would have a hard time finding a good surgeon to treat them. Clearly, any time professionals—be they surgeons or teachers—are being judged, the whole picture must be considered.

In contrast to identifying teachers based on such narrow and flawed means, a well-designed career ladder can be an excellent way to build broad teacher knowledge and leadership and identify, in a fair, credible way, teachers who desire and are well suited (by experience, skill, knowledge, and classroom effectiveness) to take up the unique challenge of accelerating academic progress as never before. Of course, there are many ways to create a career ladder—and there are many places where the union and the district have already negotiated varied roles for teachers (for example, mentors, coaches, and curriculum specialists). Toledo,9 Cincinnati, Chicago, Rochester, N.Y., and St. Francis, Minn., are just a few places where the union and district have negotiated procedures for identifying expert teachers and deploying them in needed roles, such as taking primary responsibility for mentoring and evaluating new teachers.

The Teacher Advancement Program (TAP)10 can also be a tool for this. Among other things, TAP gives teachers opportunities to earn "master" and "mentor" teacher status and, as a result, receive more responsibilities, higher compensation, and additional training related to helping other teachers improve. Importantly, TAP also carves out time during the school day for all teachers to build their knowledge and improve their instruction through professional development, analysis of student data, and collaboration with other teachers.

Together, these steps will strengthen our neediest schools. But, let's be clear: While research tells us that teaching quality is the most important school factor in determining student success,11 the best teaching possible won't lift children to the levels we all want. What else is necessary? The quick answer is the same fundamentals as any school, but more and better.

2. Support a culture of respectful student behavior: According to a recent survey, 69 percent of all teachers—and 78 percent of teachers in urban schools—say that students disrupting class is a serious problem.12 Disruptive student behavior makes it impossible for teachers to teach and students to learn. Plus, parents fear that routine school misbehavior ends up teaching their children the wrong values.

In the early grades, the solution rests on creating a school culture that is respectful. If elementary schools establish well-coordinated schoolwide and classroom-based efforts to build and sustain good behavior, they can have an enormous impact on current behavior in these lower grades—and a positive impact on these students' behavior when they are middle- and high-school students. These efforts need to include training for teachers and administrators in early screening for behavioral problems, behavior modification, and classroom management, as well as a school structure that assures that students who need more specialized help get it.13 An example of such a model is Positive Behavior Support, a research-based program that is being disseminated by the U.S. Department of Education.14

It is a substantial undertaking to do it right. But, research strongly suggests that 80 to 90 percent of children respond well to simple, schoolwide discipline policies that emphasize good behavior. That leaves just 10 to 20 percent of children in need of more intensive interventions. A longitudinal study found that aggressive first-grade boys who were assigned to disorderly classrooms were about 59 times more likely than average boys to be highly aggressive in middle school—but aggressive first-grade boys who were assigned to orderly classrooms were only about three times more likely than average boys to be highly aggressive in middle school.15

Of course, some children have severe behavioral problems that no regular classroom teacher should be expected to resolve. For these students, intensive interventions must be delivered at school and at home; teachers with special training, counselors, school social workers, and parents should all be involved.

At the secondary level, efforts to build a respectful school culture—backed by good discipline codes, an effective, consistent system of incentives and penalties, and effective teaching and classroom management—may be enough for students who are only sporadically or mildly disruptive.16 For chronically and severely disruptive youth, high-quality alternative placements are the most appropriate response—but they are expensive and not as effective as early intervention. These placements must have substantially lower teacher-student ratios, a specialized curriculum, counseling and psychological services, and individualized interventions.

3. Diagnose reading problems early and intervene right away: With appropriate early instruction, including early screening combined with well-targeted, well-designed, intensive, and immediate intervention, about 90 to 95 percent of our students could be reading at or near grade level by third grade. Without such supports, the vast majority of those who struggle with reading in elementary school continue struggling in middle and high school.17

The dissemination of the research on early diagnosis of and intervention in reading problems—and the technology that enables teachers to use it (good textbooks, appropriate screening tools, evidence-based interventions, etc.)—appears to be having an impact. From 1998 to 2005, the percentage of fourth-graders from low-income families who scored at or above basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress increased from 39 to 46 percent.18 But, the gap between where we are and where we could be if early reading were well-addressed in every high-poverty school is still great.

What's necessary to move this forward more rapidly? Professional development, on a huge and sophisticated scale, would go a long way in improving early literacy. Traditional professional development (a workshop with little to no opportunity for teachers to practice, discuss, digest, and absorb into their practice the new techniques/content, and little to no follow-up) is not very effective—and that's not what we need more of.19 The new research on reading is not simple—and it contradicts much of what has previously been taught to teachers about reading. Teachers really need the opportunity to study the new research and understand its implications for their practice and their students. If teachers feel they're just being spoon-fed a new technique that's just as faddish as the one they're being asked to give up, they will understandably resist. I hope AFT affiliates will want to work with their school districts to bring the AFT's ER&D professional development courses in reading to their teachers, much as the Toledo Federation of Teachers20 and the Providence Teachers Union have both done.

In order to put their new knowledge to work, teachers need the right tools for screening and intervention as well as instruction. And, importantly, there needs to be recognition that in high-poverty schools, where early screening is likely to identify many children who need intensive intervention, extra staff and specialists will be necessary. We all simply have to step up to the plate on this.

In the meantime, we have middle- and high-school students who are struggling to read at grade level. Some of these students are struggling with comprehension because they lack the necessary background knowledge to comprehend more sophisticated materials or content (a topic I turn to next), others are struggling because they never mastered the skills of reading and, as a result, never attained fluency. We know that these students need lengthy, intensive interventions. We need to step up the hard work in this area, including an increased research effort.

4. Provide a knowledge-rich, grade-by-grade, core curriculum: Our focus on beginning reading skills can't be allowed to crowd out content subjects. To comprehend more advanced material, children need a very large store of background knowledge—and the vocabulary that goes with it. For example, a student can't comprehend a high school lesson (or even a sixth-grade lesson) on the atmosphere if he or she does not have some familiarity with water vapor and gasses, does not understand what outer space is, and does not know anything about altitude. And it's pretty hard to understand the current debates about global warming if one doesn't have at least a cursory knowledge of the atmosphere and how it can be damaged.

Much of the background knowledge that enables advanced comprehension is imbibed as a matter of course by middle-class children. Plus, these children's initial knowledge acts like a magnet, allowing them to more quickly and easily pick up new knowledge at a faster rate.21

But again, poor children are not so lucky. We don't have good research on exactly how far behind they are in accumulating background knowledge, but vocabulary is considered a good surrogate for background knowledge. Research tells us that in their first three years of life, children from low-income families have, on average, been exposed to roughly 30 million fewer words than children from professional families. The result? The disadvantaged three-year-olds have vocabularies of about 525 words, and their advantaged peers have vocabularies of just over 1,100 words.22 When these disadvantaged children enter kindergarten, they will learn new material less quickly and easily than their middle-class peers.

If we are to bring these children to high levels of reading comprehension, we can't wait one minute to begin building their knowledge base. What does that mean, practically? That the educational content we impart to students must be well-chosen and efficiently sequenced in the curriculum. We can't afford to teach Charlotte's Web twice and classic Greek myths not at all.

First, there has to be agreement on the vital knowledge that children must acquire to become advanced readers. And, that knowledge needs to be distilled into a clear, specific, grade-by grade curriculum sequence that can guide teachers' instruction. Second, that curriculum can't delay the systematic teaching of rich content. The broad, knowledge-rich curriculum that children need can begin in kindergarten (or earlier), by immersing children systematically in such fascinating content as classic fairy tales, insects and frogs, Langston Hughes poetry, or the way Picasso used color and shape in his paintings.

Third, part of this knowledge curriculum will need to be conveyed to kindergarten through third-grade children orally (since their reading skills are limited), through a thoughtful, well-sequenced series of knowledge-building discussions and read-alouds.23 That will require new kinds of instructional materials and opportunities for teachers to build their understanding of this approach to building background knowledge.

Finally, we must resist the encroachment of instruction in beginning reading skills on the rest of the school day. I've heard of many cases where elementary schools devote their 90- to 120-minute reading block solely to skills instruction, leaving little time for teachers to offer instruction in science, history, geography, and the arts. As absolutely essential as early reading skills are, research suggests that instruction in such skills should not take all of this time.24 The rest of the block should be dedicated to imparting the necessary background knowledge. This will require that administrators, as well as teachers, at every level understand the relationship between background knowledge and later reading comprehension—and the need to devote large portions of the school day to building that knowledge.

5. Deliver additional supports, staff, time, and resources to the schools that serve the neediest students: Qualified teachers, discipline policies that support good behavior, research-based reading instruction, and a rich curriculum should be the foundation of any child's schooling. But for children who enter school behind in the knowledge and skills that will allow them to succeed academically, we need to provide more and we need to do it better. What does this mean? It probably does mean a longer day and/or year, as is provided to the children in Miami-Dade's School Improvement Zone, featured in the next article. And for the students who are the furthest behind, it also means summer programs that are designed to bring them up to grade level. It means taking special care to identify and attract to high-poverty schools a good share of the district's experienced, knowledgeable teachers, as is done in the South Bronx, which was highlighted in the last issue of this magazine.25 It also means finding the best principals, a responsibility that superintendents need to take far more seriously than has generally been the case.

It means offering the best professional development for teachers in these schools so that they can take advantage of new research and quickly translate it into classroom instruction. It means starting these children off earlier, in the best possible pre-kindergarten programs, where they can begin to build their background knowledge, their early reading skills, and their appreciation of a respectful school and classroom culture. And, as described in the following article, it means special attention from school district leadership, so that structural obstacles to children's learning can be addressed immediately.

Providing all of this is a substantial commitment. But if we realistically identify our really struggling schools and focus our efforts on them—instead of spreading our efforts more thinly on the ever-growing list of "needs improvement" schools identified by No Child Left Behind—we could afford the commitment and make it. And that's what we need to do, all of us: teachers, paraprofessionals, other school professionals, superintendents, school boards, parents, mayors, governors, Congress, and the President.

Getting Real about Helping Schools: The Details

To learn more about each of these five ways to help struggling schools, turn to American Educator's Web site.

1. Teaching quality: The Summer 2006 issue featured two articles on why new teachers leave the profession and how they can be enticed to stay. The Winter 2006–2007 issue also has a couple of relevant articles, one on union-led professional development and one on attracting experienced teachers to high-poverty schools in the South Bronx.

2. Good behavior: The Winter 2003–2004 issue featured an article on how to support positive behavior and intervene with disruptive children as well as an article on how to deter students when they start escalating hostility and disorder.

3. Early reading interventions: The Fall 2004 issue devotes two articles and several sidebars to explaining how to prevent early reading failure through screening and intervention.

4. Knowledge-rich core curriculum: The Spring 2003 issue examines several facets of disadvantaged students' knowledge gap—from their lack of exposure to a rich vocabulary in their first few years of life to how a rich curriculum and non-fiction books can help remedy the problem. The Spring 2006 issue takes a more detailed look at how broad knowledge enables reading comprehension.

5. Additional expertise: In addition to this issue's article on Miami-Dade's School Improvement Zone ("In the Zone"), the Winter 2002 issue featured an article on New York City's Chancellor's District, an initiative designed to attract well-qualified teachers to struggling schools and give them the support they need to succeed.

Antonia Cortese is the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. This article is based on remarks she made at the AFT's Winter 2007 Executive Council Meeting.


1. National Center for Education Statistics (2001). Entering Kindergarten: Findings from the Condition of Education 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

2. McCoach, D.B., O'Connell, A.A., Reis, S.M., and Levitt, H.A. (2006). "Growing Readers: A Hierarchical Linear Model of Children's Reading Growth During the First 2 Years of School." Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 14–28. Also see Alexander, K.L., Entwisle, D.R., and Olson, L.S. (2001). "Schools, Achievement and Inequality: A Seasonal Perspective." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(2), pp. 171–191.

3. National Center for Education Statistics (2007). National Assessment of Educational Progress 2005 Assessment Results. See In reading, while students who are not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch attained an average scale score of 230 points, those who are eligible scored 203 points. In math, while students who are not eligible scored 248 points, those who are eligible scored 225 points. The research community generally accepts that on the fourth-grade NAEP, 10 points is roughly equivalent to one grade level.

4. Rothstein, R. (2004). Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap. Washington, D.C.:Economic Policy Institute.

5. Ingersoll, R. M. (2002). "The teacher shortage: A case of wrong diagnosis and wrong prescription." NASSP Bulletin, 86, 16–31. Also see Smith, T. and Ingersoll, R. (2003). "The wrong solution to the teacher shortage." Educational Leadership, 60(8), 30–33.

6. Ingersoll, R.M. (2003). "Is There Really a Teacher Shortage?" Research report co-sponsored by Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy and The Consortium for Policy Research in Education. September 2003. See….

7. Johnson, S.M. et al. (2006). "…and Why New Teachers Stay." American Educator, Summer 2006, pg. 8-21,45.

8. Ingersoll, R.M. (2003). See endnote 6.

9. To learn about the Toledo Plan, go to

10. To learn about the Teacher Advancement Program, go to

11. Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). "Teacher quality and student achievement: A review of state policy evidence," Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(1).

12. Public Agenda (2004). Teaching Interrupted. Washington, D.C.: Public Agenda.

13. Walker, H.M., Ramsey, E., and Gresham, F.M. (2003/04). "Heading Off Disruptive Behavior: How Early Intervention Can Reduce Defiant Behavior-and Win Back Teaching Time." American Educator, Winter 2003–2004, p. 6–21, 45–46.

14. To learn more about Positive Behavior Support, see

15. Kellam, S., Rebok, G. Ialongo, N., and Mayer, L. (1994). "The course and malleability of aggressive behavior from early first grade into middle school: Results of a developmental epidemiologically-based prevention trial." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 35(2), 259–281.

16. Sprague, J. and Walker, H. (2005). Safe and Healthy Schools, New York: Guilford Press.

17. Torgesen, J. K. (2004). "Preventing Early Reading Failure—and Its Devastating Downward Spiral: The Evidence for Early Intervention." American Educator, Fall 2004, p. 6–19, 45–47.

18. National Center for Education Statistics (2007). National Assessment of Educational Progress 2005 Assessment Results.

19. American Educator (2002). "The Benefit to Professional Development," Summer 2002, p. 22–25.

20. Rosenfeld, N.S. (2006/07). "Nurturing Teacher Knowledge: How Union-Led Professional Development Is Raising Reaching Achievement." American Educator, Winter 2006–2007, p. 12–25.

21. Willingham, D. T. (2006). "How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking." American Educator, Spring 2006, p. 30–37.

22. Hart, B. and Risley, T.R. (2003). "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap." American Educator, Spring 2003, p. 4–9.

23. Hirsch, E.D. (2006). "Building Knowledge: The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for All Children." American Educator, Spring 2006, p.8–29, 50–51.

24. Foorman B.R. and Schatschneider, C. (2003). "Measurement of teaching practices during reading/language arts instruction and its relationship to student achievement." In Vaughn, S. and Briggs, K. (eds.), Reading in the Classroom: Systems for the Observations of Teaching and Learning (pp. 1–30). Baltimore:Brookes Publishing. Also see, Torgesen, J.K., Rashotte, C.A., Mathes, P.G., Menchetti, J.C., Grek. M.L., Robinson, C.S., et al. (2003). "Effects of teacher training and group size on reading outcomes for first-grade children at risk for reading difficulties." Unpublished manuscript, Florida State University, Tallahassee.

25. Gregory, L.W., Nevarez, N., and Weinbaum, A.T. (2006/07). "Cultivate the Right Solution: It's Attracting and Retaining Experienced Teachers." American Educator, Winter 2006–2007, p. 27, 32–38.

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