Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A SPECIAL SECTION ON THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP - Reframing the Achievement Gap

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A SPECIAL SECTION ON THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP - Reframing the Achievement Gap

Article excerpt

There are, no doubt, promising practices that schools can adopt to improve minority students' chances to succeed. But, according to Mr. Evans, the achievement gap has far more to do with social and economic factors that schools cannot control. Focusing on the schools allows us to avoid looking at the fundamental changes that will be required to eliminate the gap.

THE achievement gap, the persistent disparity between the performance of African American and Hispanic students and that of white and Asian American students, is perhaps the most stubborn, perplexing issue confronting American schools today. Closing the gap is widely seen as important not just for our education system but ultimately for our economy, our social stability, and our moral health as a nation.

The conventional wisdom has it that the achievement gap is a school problem. This belief is invitingly simple, allowing a narrow focus on schools that suits the current passion for accountability through testing. But it is fatally shortsighted. It misunderstands and mistreats schools and, more important, black and Hispanic students.

When we set the achievement gap and schooling itself in the broader context of how children grow up, it becomes clear that the issue far transcends the classroom. Its roots lie well beyond the reach of schools, and so the underlying dilemma will require much, much more than school-based strategies and programs. Educators must do all they can to pursue promising approaches for reducing the gap. But holding them, almost alone, accountable for closing it is a doomed strategy that can only disserve our most vulnerable children.

The Case Against Schools

Two facts about the gap are clear: its origins lie neither in students nor in schools. Skin color, ethnic status, poverty -- none of these, by themselves, determine a student's performance. There are black and Hispanic students everywhere, including those whose families are poor, who succeed impressively. Nor, for their part, do schools create the disparity. Substantial numbers of black and Hispanic students begin kindergarten well behind other students in academic readiness. Both sets of facts are equally important, but most "achievement gap critics" emphasize the former and minimize the latter. They blame educators for failing to eliminate the gap and indeed for enlarging it. Reduced to its core, their logic is: all children are created equal, but all children are not performing equally in school; the gap typically worsens as children advance through the grades; the fault must therefore be the schools', so the solution must lie in school; the necessary knowledge and tools are available, and schools must be pressed to apply them.

This critique actually targets two achievement gaps, urban and suburban, and operates at two levels, structure and practice. The most obvious issues are found in the schools with the largest minority enrollments. Predominantly urban, many of these schools are, by almost any measure, less congenial to learning than others, because, proportionally, they have more teachers who are inexperienced, poorly trained, and uncertified; more textbooks that are outdated; fewer computers; larger class sizes; and buildings that are in worse repair and more marked by violence. The Education Trust has detailed egregious practices by incompetent teachers in these schools.1 Other advocacy groups have concentrated on inequities in the resources, materials, and physical conditions of high-minority, low-performing schools. The collective case is indisputable: the students who most need our best teachers and best learning environments rarely have access to either.

At bottom, these problems really involve the structural characteristics of urban schools, and they reflect economic and political realities that are mostly beyond the power of those schools to remedy. For example, high-minority, low-performing schools hire fewer top-quality teachers than others and have greater turnover -- not because they want to, but because they can't attract and retain better candidates. …

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