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ACHIEVEMENT TRAP: New Report Examines How America is Failing High-Achieving Students from Low-Income Families

“No Child Left Behind’s successes in demanding greater accountability for reversing poor achievement among low-income students are laudable and should be continued,” said Joshua S. Wyner

The nation’s schools are failing not just low-achieving, poor students, but their high-achieving peers as well, according to a new report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and Civic Enterprises. Achievement Trap: How America is Failing 3.4 Million High-Achieving Students from Lower-Income Families calls for continuing the national goal of improving basic skills and ensuring minimal proficiency in reading and math among low-income students but says that there also must be a more concerted effort to promote high achievement within the same population.

“No Child Left Behind’s successes in demanding greater accountability for reversing poor achievement among low-income students are laudable and should be continued,” said Joshua S. Wyner, executive vice president of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “But we are missing an important opportunity to promote high achievement for all students, no matter what their income and background. The needs of high-potential and high-achieving students should not be pitted against the educational needs of underachievers.”

According to the report, about 3.4 million students in grades K–12 come from families with incomes below the national median but still manage to score in the top quartile academically. Of these students, more than one million qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. These high-achieving, lower-income students, who the report calls “young strivers,” come from families in poverty and from working-class families and are demographically and geographically very similar to the overall population of students.

“The presence of these 3.4 million students provides hope to others caught in similar circumstances,” the report reads. “Even though they possess fewer resources and often suffer from low expectations in the classroom, many lower-income students still find ways to excel, giving us reason to believe that students can perform at very high levels despite economic disadvantages.”

Of the first-grade students who score at the highest quartile, only 28 percent come from families in America’s lower economic half, compared to the 72 percent that come from the top economic half. “If childhood achievement levels were independent of economic background, we would expect that half of the top academic achievers would come from each half of the economic scale,” the report reads. Instead, “lower-income children have inadequate access to high-quality preschool programs that can significantly increase academic ability, cognitive development, social adjustment, and professional achievement.”

According to the report, this “disparity at the starting line” continues throughout elementary and secondary school. It finds that young strivers have more difficulty maintaining their lofty academic standing than high-achieving students from more affluent families. For example, the report finds that 44 percent of lower-income students fall out of the top achievement quartile in reading between first and fifth grades, compared to only 31 percent of students from higher-income families.

Young strivers who maintain their status through fifth grade face another challenge as they enter high school. More than 25 percent of high-achieving students from lower-income families fall from the top quartile of achievement between the start of ninth grade and the end of high school. In a bit of good news, while high-achieving lower-income students’ achievement levels may fall, they are unlikely to drop out of high school altogether. In fact, the report finds that 93 percent of students who were high-achieving and lower-income in eighth grade graduate from high school on time.

Lower-income students who finish high school in the top quartile of achievement go to college at rates similar to their high-achieving peers from more affluent families, according to Achievement Trap. However, high-achieving students from lower-income families are much less likely to graduate from college (59 percent) than their high-achieving peers from wealthier families (77 percent).

Several recommendations are offered to ensure that more young strivers reach their potential. For example, the report suggests a greater focus on early childhood in order to understand why comparatively few lower-income students achieve at high levels upon entering elementary school and what can be done to close the achievement gap in first grade. It also recommends that local school districts, states, and the federal government collect better data on high-achieving lower-income students and the programs that contribute to their success, and use this information to identify and replicate practices that sustain and improve high levels of performance.

The nation’s failure to help the nation’s young strivers reach their potential has significant implications for the social mobility of America’s lower-income families and the strength of the nation’s economy and society as a whole. “By reversing the downward trajectory of their educational achievement, we will not only improve the lives of lower-income high-achievers, but also strengthen our nation by unleashing the potential of literally millions of young people who could be making great contributions to our communities and country,” the report states.

The complete report is available at

Education on Parade: Bill Gates Shares Views on National Standards, U.S. High Schools in National Magazine


The September 23 issue of Parade magazine featured Microsoft chairman and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation cochair Bill Gates, with the headline “Can Bill Gates Fix Our Failing Schools?” In the article, Gates—who two years ago stood before the nation’s governors and asserted that today’s high schools are “obsolete” and who declared that he was “appalled” by the state of the U.S. education system—said that education was especially important to the foundation that he and his wife Melinda have created.

Gates considers standardized testing a valuable and necessary component of education. “Testing is the only objective measurement of our students,” he said, adding, “It’s incredible that we have no national standard.” The alarming number of students who graduate from high school unprepared for the twenty-first-century workplace is also a point of concern for Gates, who notes that more than a third of high school graduates “have no employable skills.”

Gates views a back-to-basics approach as the way to fix our nation’s schools, with a special emphasis on phonics in reading instruction. Gates also believes in rewarding quality teachers and in ending the disparities between urban and suburban schools. He cites the high dropout rate of black males as a serious problem. He also points out that 20 percent of Americans who take honors classes and go on to college will get an education “as good as or better than anywhere else in the world. It’s the other 80 percent where the U.S. is weak.”

The full article is available at


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