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Why the Achievement Gap Matters and Will Remain

EdWeek features a story that is a typical crisis report on education in the U.S. that has been repeated for decades, although the current crisis has expanded beyond African American students to include Hispanic students: "Study Finds Gaps Remain Large for Hispanic Students":

"While growing numbers of Hispanic students have changed the face of American education over the past two decades, the gap between them and their white classmates in math and reading remains as wide as it was in the 1990s, according to a new federal study."

The hand wringing over the White/Hispanic achievement gap, however, exposes more about the failure of political, media, and public discourse as well as current and historic patterns of education reform than about our education system.


With a little care, we can unravel the inherent flaws in both our assumptions about the achievement gap and the misguided approaches to addressing it in our schools.

First, and this is the most important aspect of the topic, the achievement gap is primarily a reflection of the equity gap that exists in the lives of children, and only secondarily a reflection of school quality and practices.

This is central to any effective commitments to addressing inequity for children, but this fact exposes why the EdWeek headline is unlikely ever to be any different as long as we persist in addressing only in-school dynamics and focus on the narrowest forms of student outcomes, test scores.

While politicians and the media misrepresent the achievement gap in order to demonize schools and teachers, we have ample evidence that addressing the whole life of the child is the only avenue to closing an achievement gap. Barton and Coley have crafted a plan to address reform targeting schools, children's homes, and the complex mix of any child's community and wider society.

But the political, corporate, and media elite—who are using the "achievement gap" refrain to mask their true commitments to maintaining the current status quo of privilege and inequity—reject all evidence-based calls for addressing social forces as using poverty for an excuse. Yet, the persistent result that in-school-only reform has achieved over the past half century is to ensure, as the newest report shows (just as all studies have shown), that the gap remains.

And this first point leads to a key failure in logic that is the second point: As Walt Gardner has succinctly explained: "Don't forget that advantaged children are not standing still in the interim. They continue to benefit from travel and other enriching learning experiences. As a result, the gap will persist."

This second point is a simple failure in logic. If we start with a solid premise (the lives of children outside of school contribute about 60-85% of measurable student outcomes), and then implement inequitable in-school policies (testing, labeling, and stratifying students in order to ask less of those labeled most in need), we should expect only one outcome—a persistent achievement gap.

Historically and currently, we pretend that test scores fairly represent learning, we pretend that schools alone determine student outcomes, we implement inequitable school policies that we label as reform addressing the gap, we pretend that lives of inequity and lives of privilege somehow pause while we implement these policies, and then we express disbelief that the achievement gap persists.

And this is the cruel irony of political and bureaucratic approaches to the achievement gap—an irony that is a damning rebuttal to the intent of the rhetoric each time a political or corporate leader speaks to that gap.

A few key shifts in both how we discuss the achievement gap and address that gap would show a genuine concern for closing that gap:

• We must replace the phrase "achievement gap" with "equity gap"—clearly expressing that many aspects of children's lives reflect the persistent facts of privilege and inequity in our culture. Since children have little autonomy and no political power, children remain the most stark mirrors of who we are as people and a culture.

• We must address inequity in the lives of children and their families—and confront our cultural habit of masking those inequities behind our myths claiming freedom and equality for all. If we indeed embrace the ideal of human agency and equity, then we must also be willing to admit that this ideal has yet to be achieved. We have historically embraced the myth to the exclusion of confronting we have work left to be done.

• We must focus all school reform on ending traditional and bureaucratic approaches to education that perpetuate the inequity and privilege students bring to school from their lives: standardized testing that is highly correlated with students' home characteristics, stratified courses and gate-keeping policies for those courses, inequitable teacher assignments and class sizes (privileged students sit in classrooms with the most experienced and highly qualified teachers as well as the smallest student/teacher ratios), and a community-based school resources model that allows each school to reflect the coincidence of every child's birth to determine her/his access to education.

The political and corporate elite benefit from a constant state of education crisis because that perception allows them to point at the schools and distract us from their own failure to address the conditions of inequity that insure their privilege.

People living in poverty and trapped in a cycle of social inequity—specifically children—are not the agents of that inequity. The powerful determine the conditions of our society, and our schools reflect and maintain those conditions.

A persistent achievement gap is an accurate indictment of our schools as mechanisms of perpetuating inequity and privilege, but it is a greater indictment of the power of the cultural elite to maintain their privilege while claiming to seek equity.

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...