Poverty is the problem that must be solved... Our Schools Are Not Broken...

[Editor's Note: The following — Our Schools are Not Broken: The Problem is Poverty — by Stephen Krashen was originally given as the Commencement Speech, Graduate School of Education and Counseling, Lewis and Clark College on June 5, 2011. All footnotes appear at the end].

"Broken" schools?

As of October 2010, after 15 years of mayoral control (during eight of which Arne Duncan was Chief Executive Officer of Chicago's public schools) the public learned that 160 out of 600 Chicago public schools did not have libraries for their children. Virtually all of those schools were in high poverty areas of the city. Duncan's neglect of books came at a time when he had radically increased the amount of testing in Chicago's schools and undertaken a major campaign to blame teachers for the effects of poverty, firing more than 1,000 teachers and principals in the first wave of "turnaround" (now the national policy of the Obama administration) when schools had low test scores. Parents, teachers and students at Chicago's Whittier Elementary School (above) staged a month-long sit-in and risked arrest on several occasions to demand that a small building adjacent to the school house a library. Above, on October 5, the children and adults were logging in books that had been donated to "La Casita" (the "Little House") for the Whittier library. Despite all of the work exposing the scandal surrounding the refusal of Chicago to provide books in schools and communities for poor children, the Chicago Board of Education continued its policy of overtesting and underbooking schools in the city's vast barrios and ghettos. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.We have been told repeatedly that our schools are "broken," that our teachers are inadequate, that our schools of education are not doing their job, and that teachers unions are spending all their time protecting bad teachers. The evidence is the fact that American students do not score at the top of the world on international test scores. One observer claimed that American students are "taking a shellacking" on these tests. (1)

The impact of poverty

Not so. Studies show that middle-class American students attending well-funded schools outscore students in nearly all other countries on these tests. (2) Overall scores are unspectacular because over 20% of our students live in poverty, the highest percentage among all industrialized countries. High-scoring Finland, for example, first on the PISA science test in 2006, has less than 4% child poverty. (3)

Reduce poverty to improve education, not vice-versa

The fact that American students who are not living in poverty do very well shows that there is no crisis in teacher quality. The problem is poverty. The US Department of Education insists that improving teaching comes first: With better teaching, we will have more learning (higher test scores, according to the feds), and this will improve the economy. We are always interested in improving teaching, but the best teaching in the world will have little effect when students are hungry, are in poor health because of inadequate diet and inadequate health care, and have low literacy development because of a lack of access to books. (4) Also, studies have failed to find a correlation between improved test scores and subsequent economic progress. (5)

The relationship is the other way around: "We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.” (Martin Luther King, 1967, Final Words of Advice).

Ignoring all of the evidence that shows that books improve the education of poor children and tests don't, members of Chicago's ruling class, including millionaires Robin Steans (above left) and R. Eden Martin (above right) continued their attack on teachers and teacher unions. Steans, head of a group financed by the wealthiest people in Chicago, pushed legislation in the Illinois General Assembly aimed at firing teachers whose classes showed low test scores, while her group, "Advance Illinois", ignored such blatant examples of discrimination as the lack of libraries in Chicago's public schools. One of the co-chairman of Advance Illinois is Bill Daley, the banker brother of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (and currently White House Chief of Staff). Eden Martin, former corporate secretary of Aon Insurance and partner in one of Chicago's biggest corporate law firm, attacked unions and public schools on several fronts at once. Above, the two were featured testifying before a newly created entity called the "Illinois House School Reform Committee" on December 17, 2010. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.At least: Protect children from the effects of poverty

If poverty is the problem, the solution is full employment and a living wage for honest work. Until this happens, we need to do what we can to protect children from the effects of poverty. This means (1) continue to support and expand free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs ("No child left unfed," as Susan Ohanian puts it). It means (2) make sure all schools have an adequate number of school nurses; there are fewer school nurses per student in high poverty schools than in low poverty schools. (6)

It means (3) make sure all children have access to books.

Access to books > more reading > literacy development

There is very clear evidence that children from high-poverty families have very little access to books at home, at school, and in their communities. (7)

Studies also show when children have access to interesting and comprehensible reading material, they read. (8)

And finally, when children read, they improve in all aspects of literacy, including vocabulary, grammar, spelling, reading and writing ability.9 In fact, I have concluded that reading for pleasure, self-selected reading, is the major cause of literacy development. Making sure that all children have access to books makes literacy development possible. Without it, literacy development is impossible.

The power of libraries

In support of this chain of logic, a number of studies show that school library quality and the presence of credential librarians are related to reading ability. The leader of this research in the United States is Keith Curry Lance, who, with his associates, has reported that school library quality is related to reading achievement in a number of different states. (10)

Related to the poverty issue, the results of some recent studies have suggested that access to books, either at home or at the school library, can mitigate or balance the effect of poverty: The positive impact of access to books on reading achievement is about as large as the negative impact of poverty. (11)

Access can close the gap

A stunning example of the power of books to close the gap between different groups is Fryer and Levitt's (2004) analysis. They reported that white children did better than African-American children on tests administered on entrance to kindergarten. When socio-economic status was added to the analysis, about 2/3 of the gap was closed. When books in the home was added to the analysis in addition to socio-economic status, the entire gap was closed: There was no difference between the groups. (12)

Unfortunately, public and school libraries across the country are suffering tremendous budget cuts, and school librarians' hours are being reduced. (13)

As Isaac Asimov wrote, "When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself" (from his autobiography, I, Asimov).

How to pay for it: Reduce testing

We can easily afford to protect children from many of the effects of poverty. The obvious step is to halt the drive toward increased testing and reduce the amount of testing we are paying for now.

The astonishing increase in testing

It is widely acknowledged that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) required an excessive amount of testing. Not well known is the fact that the US Department of Education is planning to spend billions on a massive new testing program, with far more testing than ever before, all linked to national standards. The new plan will require, as before, tests in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school, but it also includes interim testing, and may include pre-testing in the fall to be able to measure growth during the year. In addition, the US Department of Education is encouraging testing in other subjects as well. The tests are to be administered online, which means a huge investment in getting all students connected. (14)

No evidence supporting the increase in testing

There is no evidence supporting the idea that tests to enforce national standards will have a positive impact on student learning. In fact, the evidence we have suggests that it will not: States that use more high-stakes tests do not do better on the national NAEP test than states with fewer, (15) and the use of the standardized SAT does not predict college success over and above high school grades. (16)

Countries that use standardized tests for course examinations did only slightly better on the PISA, a test of reading given to 15 year olds, and the use of such tests to compare schools and to make curricular decisions has a near- zero correlation with PISA scores. (17)

Of course, the administration has argued that these will be new and better tests, more sensitive to growth in learning, able to chart student progress through the year, and able to probe real learning, not just memorization. Before unleashing these "improved" tests on the country, however, there should be rigorous investigation, rigorous studies to show that these measures are worth the investment. Right now, the corporations and politicians insist that we take on faith the claim that these tests are good for students. Such claims exhibit a profound lack of accountability.

In contrast, there is overwhelming evidence that dealing with poverty is an excellent investment, one that will not only improve school achievement but also affect quality of life and personal happiness.

To summarize:

1. American education is not broken. Our less than spectacular international test scores are not because of bad teaching, but are because of our high rate of child poverty.

2. Reducing poverty will improve educational attainment, not vice-versa.

3. A reasonable first step is to protect children from the effects of poverty: No child left unfed, more health care, improve access to books.

4. We can easily pay for much of this by reducing testing.


1. Bonstell, A. 2011. America's academic meltdown, Orange County Register, May 5, 2011.

2. Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13; Bracey, G. 2009. The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit.; Berliner, D. The Context for Interpreting PISA Results in the USA: Negativism, Chauvinism, Misunderstanding, and the Potential to Distort the Educational Systems of Nations. In Pereyra, M., Kottoff, H-G., and Cowan, R. (Eds.). PISA under examination: Changing knowledge, changing tests, and changing schools. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers. In press.


4. Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder

and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit.; Coles, G. 2008/2009. Hunger, academic success, and the hard bigotry of indifference. Rethinking Schools 23 (2); Rothstein, R. (2010). How to fix our schools. Economic Policy Institute, Issue Brief #286.; Coles, G. 2008/2009. Hunger, academic success, and the hard bigotry of indifference. Rethinking Schools 23 (2).; Krashen, S. 1997. Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership 55(4): 18-22; Martin, M. 2004. A strange ignorance: The role of lead poisoning in “failing schools.”

5. Zhao, Y. 2009. Catching Up or Leading the Way? American Education in the Age of Globalization. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.; Baker, K. 2007. Are international tests worth anything? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2), 101-104.

6. Berliner, D. 2009. op. cit.

7. Di Loreto, C., and Tse, L. 1999. Seeing is believing: Disparity in books in two Los Angeles area public libraries. School Library Quarterly 17(3): 31-36; Duke, N. 2000. For the rich it's richer: Print experiences and environments offered to children in very low and very high-socioeconomic status first-grade classrooms. American Educational Research Journal 37(2): 441-478; Neuman, S.B. and Celano, D. 2001. Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities: An ecological study of four neighborhoods. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 1, 8-26.

8. Lindsay, J. 2010. Children's Access to Print Material and Education-Related Outcomes: Findings from a Meta-Analytic Review. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates.

9. McQuillan, J. 1998. The Literacy Crisis: False Claims and Real Solutions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Company; Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Portsmouth: Heinemann and Westport: Libraries Unlimited; Lindsay, J. 2010. op. cit.

10. Lance, K. 2004. The impact of school library media centers on academic achievement. In Carol Kuhlthau (Ed.), School Library Media Annual. 188-197. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited. (For access to the many Lance studies done in individual states, as well as studies done by others at the state level, see

11. Achterman, D. 2008. Haves, Halves, and Have-Nots: School Libraries and Student Achievement in California. PhD dissertation, University of North Texas.; Evans, M, Kelley, J. Sikora, J. and Treiman,D. 2010. Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 28 (2): 171-197; Krashen, S., Lee, SY, and McQuillan, J. 2010. An analysis of the PIRLS (2006) data: Can the school library reduce the effect of poverty on reading achievement? CSLA (California School Library Association) Journal, 34 (1); 26-28; Schubert, F. and Becker, R. 2010. Social inequality of reading literacy: A longitudinal analysis with cross-sectional data of PIRLS 2001and PISA 2000 utilizing the pair wise matching procedure. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 29:109-133.

12. Fryer, R. and Levitt, S. 2004. Understanding the black-white test score gap in the first two years of school. The Review of Economics and Statistics 86 (2): 447-464.

13. American Library Association, 2010. The State of America's Libraries. American Libraries (Special Issue).

14. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. (2010) ESEA Blueprint for Reform, Washington, D.C.; Krashen, S. and Ohanian, S. 2011. High tech

testing on the way: A 21st century boondoggle? dialogue/ /2011/04/high_tech_testing_on_the_way_a.html. Apparently even the president of the United States has not been aware of the amount of testing the Department of Education was planning. On March 28, 2011, the President, in response to a question at a townhall meeting, commented that "we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids" and suggested that we "figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years," as well as use other criteria. office/2011/03/28/remarks-president-univision-town-hall

15. Nichols, S., Glass, G., and Berliner, D. 2006. High-stakes testing and student achievement: Does accountability increase student learning? Education Policy Archives 14(1).

16. Geiser, S. and Santelices, M.V., 2007. Validity of high-school grades in predicting student success beyond the freshman year: High-school record vs. standardized tests as indicators of four-year college outcomes. Research and Occasional Papers Series: CSHE 6.07, University of California, Berkeley. http://cshe.berkeley.ed; Bowen, W., Chingos, M., and McPherson, M. 2009. Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Universities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

17. OECD 2011. Lessons from PISA for the United States, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education, OECD Publishing.


June 10, 2011 at 5:57 PM

By: Analizabeth Doan Woolfolk

Poverty is the problem that must be solved... Our Schools Are Not Broken... Stephen Krashen - June

I live on the US/Mexico border and support what Stephen Krashen says 100%, unfortunately the Secretary of Education is elite old school and works from opinion and does not believe in the research.

June 11, 2011 at 10:36 AM

By: john whitfield

Just gimme some truth

Thanks Krashen, and the resistance!

It is so evident, with students asking for $ to take the bus home, going to the office to ask for bus cards. Hearing students say I'm hungry at school.

This is what we want to hear, the truth. Like J. Lennon sang, "Just gimme some, truth. All I want is the truth."

Send us a little Alfie Kohn, Substance while you are at it.

Just gimme some Truth, John Lennon

I’m sick and tired of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow –minded

hypocritics. All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth! I’ve had enough of reading things by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians. All I want is the truth, Just gimme some truth. No short –haired, yellow –bellied, son of tricky dicky is gonna mother hubbard soaf soap me with just a pocket full of hope. Just gimme some truth. All I want is the truth. I’m sick to death of seeing things from tight –lipped, condescending, mama’s little chauvinists. All I want is the truth, just gimme some truth. Now I’ve had enough of watching scenes of schizophrenic, ego-centric, paranoiac, prima-donnas. All I want is the truth. Now just gimme some truth.

June 11, 2011 at 5:36 PM

By: Joan Kramer

Stephen Krashen's commencement speech

Thank you Dr. K for laying out all the arguments so clearly. Everyone should tweet and post this Facebook!! The word is out for those who already know, but too many people blame teachers for all our ills.

And thank you Substance News for printing the entire speech with footnotes.

Saddest to me is that we don't want to fix poverty -- and we are seeing more and more unemployment and underemployment all the time.

June 13, 2011 at 7:15 AM

By: Philomena Marinaccio-Eckel

Krashen's message

Krashen's simple message is genius.

June 19, 2011 at 4:37 AM

By: John Kugler

Republicans Cut Food Assistance For Low-Income Families

House Republicans Cut Food Assistance For Low-Income Families

First Posted: 06/14/11 11:06 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- If you're an azalea at the National Arboretum, you're in luck -- a Republican on the House Appropriations Committee is looking out for you. If you're a woman, infant or child, however, you're on your own.

Slipped into the FY 2012 agriculture appropriations bill that the House is expected to take up today is an unusual provision on page 13 requiring the National Arboretum to maintain a very specific portion of its azalea collection.

"The Committee directs the National Arboretum to maintain its National Boxwood Collection and the Glenn Dale Hillside portion of the Azalea Collection," reads the bill. "The Committee encourages the National Arboretum to work collaboratively with supporters of the National Arboretum to raise additional funds to ensure the long-term viability of these and other important collections."

While azaleas are being carefully tended to, the bill would cut $832 million from a program that provides food assistance to low-income mothers and children. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the reduction could result in as many as 475,000 people being turned away from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) if food prices continue to rise.

“Everyday people across the country leave their homes in search of work, only to return at the end of the day with more worries and less hope," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), the agriculture subcommittee's ranking member. "At a time that people continue to struggle to make ends meet, Republicans want to cut funding to food programs that are helping put food on the tables of those most in need."

"Governing is about choices. It is clear where the House majority’s priorities lie -- and it is not with those of the American people," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a strong WIC advocate, in a statement. "These cuts are unconscionable and will not only hurt families trying to survive, but also hurt our economy."

"We understand that we have an obligation to get our fiscal house in order," added Farr. "And Democrats are ready to work with our friends across the aisle to make that happen, but not by discriminately targeting those most in need.”

Story continues below

Azalea upkeep isn't the only unusual measure in the bill:

Animal Welfare Act doesn’t Apply to Movie Sets: "APHIS is using vital animal welfare resources to regulate the pets of extras in filmed entertainment. While the Animal Welfare Act’s intent is to establish minimally acceptable standards in the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers, the law was not aimed at regulating companion animals used as extras in the background of movies and television productions. The Committee urges the agency to use the Secretary’s discretionary authority to seek alternative means of meeting its statutory mandate, including the option of issuing exemptions or master exhibitor licenses to these pet owners." [p. 19]

Extra Money For Wolf Control: "Wildlife Damage Management – The Committee provides $72,500,000 for Wildlife Damage Control, approximately $4 million above the President’s request. ... Special emphasis should be placed on those areas such as livestock protection...predator control, and other threats to agriculture industries.” [p. 20]

Less Money To Investigate Performance Enhancing Drugs: “The Committee is deeply troubled about the expenditure of scarce appropriated funds investigating alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. The Committee can discern no prudent interest for the FDA to investigate allegations that unapproved drugs may have been used outside the United States." [p. 54]

It's not clear who is responsible for the azalea provision, and the office of Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, did not return a request for comment.

National Arboretum Director Colien Hefferan was equally confused when contacted by The Huffington Post on Monday.

"We did not request the specific language in the bill, either through the Arboretum or the Department of Agriculture as a whole," she said. "I presume some stakeholders were eager to ensure that the azalea collection, as well as the boxwood collection, are protected at the Arboretum and probably requested through a congressman, but I don't really know the source. ... To my knowledge, there has not been an unfunded direction to the arboretum that's come in the appropriations bill previously."

Additionally, the Arboretum has already committed to preserving the azalea collection. In fact, there's a message on this issue on the front page of the institution's website.

Last year, The Washington Post reported that the financially strapped Arboretum was considering removing some of the beloved shrubs to deal with budget shortfalls, including the loss of private donations.

After public outcry and a $1 million endowment gift from an anonymous donor, the Arboretum announced in February that it was reversing its decision.

Several current and former members of Congress and staffers sit on the board of the Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) and used to work or serve on the Appropriations Committee. They all told The Huffington Post that they were not responsible for the appropriations bill provision and had no idea who was.

"I am prohibited by law from having any contact with the House or Senate for 2 years -- ethics reform trumps the Bill of Rights -- so, no, that was not my request," emailed back former Utah senator Bob Bennett, commenting on the fact that he's not allowed to lobby Congress.

Former Missouri senator Kit Bond's office simply replied, "In response to your question, the answer is 'no.'"

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen's (D-N.J.) spokesman also said the congressman did not make the request.

Charles Flickner, a former staff director for the Appropriations Committee, said that as far as he could tell, no one on the FONA board requested the provision and it was likely inserted by staff or members who are simply azalea fans.

"From the email traffic, we're all quite astonished to see it, because I don't think anybody from the [FONA] government affairs committee, which I'm not a part of...requested it," said Flickner. "I do know that the staff, at least in the House, are well familiar with the issue. There are people who know about the arboretum and appreciate it."

This story was updated with response from Frelinghuysen.

March 15, 2014 at 10:08 PM

By: Virginia Burton

public mindset

Public opinion generally views poverty as a choice within the Black community. They do not want to answer for how discrimination has created a psychology that in effect does not match the majority opinion in many instances including the worth of a good education. In conjunction white teachers have in past generations of been the subject of abuse of black students within the public school system.

November 1, 2023 at 1:28 AM

By: John Whitfield

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