“Achievement Gap” reconsidered

References to the ‘achievement gap” first emerged in the 1960s. With the coinage of the term, researchers studying desegregation efforts in New Jersey sought to highlight disparities in educational outcomes between ‘Negro’ students and their White peers—a worthwhile endeavor, no doubt. From there, the ‘achievement gap’ took off, capturing as it did the tangible, enduring injustices of our public school system in the wake of legal integration.

Forty years later, though, to a growing number of educators and activists, the achievement gap has worn out its welcome. Despite the good intentions with which it first entered our vernacular, in an ever-diversifying and increasingly complex society, we need better words with which to describe and debate the pursuit of educational excellence for all.

The term’s shortcomings lie in its imprecision. Over the last few decades, we’ve come to use it as shorthand.  So short, in fact, that we barely know what we’re describing.

Some users deploy it to talk about what they consider thoroughly economic gaps—disparities that are deeply intertwined with race in this country but not directly attributable to it. Others are curious to learn more about how the students of different racial groups compare when we control for income. Others still use the term because of its lack of clarity, its buzzword status. For this last group, it offers an entrée into the conversation without the difficult work of confronting the complex issues underlying it.

But my issue with the achievement gap goes much deeper than its fuzziness. Intentional or not, focusing on a disparity in outcomes between two racial groups both confuses what our bar of excellence should be and implies that the students falling behind are a source of the problem. This both alienates our communities of color and fuels misconceptions that derail and distract from the real issues at hand. Consider how disparities in standardized test performance had led to speculation about how the characteristics intrinsic to the underserved group might be fueling its disenfranchisement (everything from intelligence and culture to parent engagement and baggy pants). In short, focusing on the ‘gap’ asks students and parents of color the same question W.E.B. DuBois heard echoed almost a century ago: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

For me, there’s a personal aspect here, too. As a parent in the state with the 49th lowest ACT scores nationwide, I cringe to think that the bar of excellence for my child would be anything other than absolute. Like every mother, I will assess my child’s education with one question: Is she prepared to take advantage of every opportunity she wants and deserves? In the shadow of this query, her performance relative to another ethnic or socioeconomic group falls from view.

Thus, we see the need for a shift in our shared thinking. Rather than dwelling on where Black students rank compared to their White peers, we must confront the no less glaring gap between what our kids need to thrive and what they’ve received. Only then will we give our teachers, students, principals, districts and parents the tools and support needed to work towards ensuring educational excellence for all.