Monthly Archives: September 2013

Why the Achievement Gap is an Enemy of the Poor

As a country, we continue to struggle with creating equitable opportunity for all- including those mired in poverty. Addressing the achievement gap is a way, ostensibly, of doing so.  I argue, though, that attempts to address the achievement gap are simply more distractions from the real need to address poverty itself directly.  As Matt Bruenig writes in referring to Michelle Rhee and others who posit schools as the way to address issues of poverty, “Anyone who says this is an enemy of poor people, full stop.” (See Paul Thomas for more on “word magic” of language such as “achievement gap” here.) The achievement gap is a function of poverty, not a function of schooling.


1. We must remember that the achievement gap is a gap that is determined by standardized, high stakes, testing.  These tests work from a normalized perspective of culture, which means that “normal” is determined by those who have the privilege of benefiting from that culture. And testing necessarily creates winners and losers- those of privilege will always beat those without. Money and color= privilege in this scenario, so it follows that those with money, whiteness and all of the privilege associated with this version of what “normal” is benefit, while those without are further stigmatized by a “gap” that sets them up as losers without truly offering the agency that makes a difference. Rather than viewing cultural differences as differences, each with strengths and limitations, this frame of “achievement gap” values one culture over the other, and one class over the other, and the “other” is thus seen through the lens of “deficit.”  It follows that the achievement gap is actually a misnomer for what scholar Paul Thomas and others call the “equity gap,” and that the label and frame of “achievement gap” functions to protect the status quo.  It’s not a gap of achievement, but a gap of equitable conditions within our society.

2. All of the solutions to the “achievement gap” that I’ve seen are technical, privatized, and ignore what I’ve written above.  (I argue that a “technical” solution is programmatic and ignores such questions as the quality of the person implementing the program.  I continue to remember Bill O’Brien’s admonishment that,  “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.”  The person who is implementing the intervention makes a huge difference!  This is only one example of something that technical solutions ignore.  And by “privatized,” I mean that they are solutions that address the individual student from a “no excuses” frame rather than one that helps to understand the broader context that individual decisions take place within and are partially determined by- thus shrinking a “field” of decision-making into a “private/individual choice.”  As if students consciously choose to not “succeed.”)  And all of the so-called solutions that I’ve seen are unsuccessful.   Why?  Because a technical solution is always implemented in a culture that is determined by real human relationships.  These relationships are the core of what must be addressed, but you can’t do this with a program, (so it doesn’t sell well.)  Authentic relationships can only occur when the “other” is valued for his/her own sake, rather than from the starting point of one who needs help with a “gap.”  (This isn’t to say that we aren’t here to help and support, or to close gaps.  It is to say that the relationship is foundational to, and precedes the help and support.  Any obstacle to the relationship is an obstacle to support.  And the assumption, even and maybe especially if, it is unconscious, that “my culture” is of higher value than the yours, the one determined to be of deficit, is an obstacle to relationship.)  And if this is true, then we need to consider the broader context of relationships and tensions (i.e., how race and poverty factor in to school performance and school relationships) that school takes place in.

3. Thus, we are left with tough, tough issues that are incredibly hard to deal with.  Questions like, how do we deal with differences of class and color? (As the income gap continues to increase, we can expect the “achievement gap” to do the same.)  How aware are we of our unconscious assumptions towards these children?  How much of our thinking regarding the achievement gap is really based on an imposition of normalizing children, rather than listening to them and learning from them (and their families)? How much of  school culture is achievement based (and measuring achievement via all kinds of “scores”)- thus treating learning simply as knowledge acquisition, and thus artificially creating winners (those with a head start in that normalized version of knowledge deemed worth acquiring) and losers from the start?   And what is our role in addressing the larger societal concerns around poverty and race that are the roots of the creation of the equity gap?

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers.  However, the older I get, the more I see race and poverty as a huge issues that truly affect us all, foundational issues for understanding the broader context of so much that is happening in ed reform and politically.  I also am deepening my own understanding that, and this continues to be personal, it’s really easy for well-intended people of high SES and whiteness to act with no understanding of their privilege, and this usually ends up unintentionally harming those it’s intended to help.

For further context (and support for my thinking) I encourage all to read (and share widely) the following:

Paul Thomas on ed policy that addresses “factually inaccurate, but publicly effective” and the roots of the achievement gap:

Matt DiCarli’s article, which discusses the role of teachers, and the their inherent limitations, in addressing the equity gap:

Paul Thomas again. Here he explains the equity gap, the overall context of “achievement gap” issues, and provides solutions:

Walt Gardner on the achievement gap and poverty:

Three Inherent Contradictions Within the Corporate Ed Reform Movement

Modern man {sic} must descend the spiral of his own absurdity to the lowest point; only then can he look beyond it. It is obviously impossible to get around it, jump over it, or simply avoid it.

Vaclav Havel

1. By emphasizing “accountability,” and then “holding teachers accountable” to teaching content through high stakes testing, corporate ed reformers reinforce the artificial, all too rigid silos (math separated from science, etc.) of traditional curriculum and then complain that students aren’t prepared with “21st Century Skills.”

2. By focusing on knowledge acquisition within the silos of this curriculum and then holding teachers accountable for such content through high stakes testing, corporate ed reformers ignore the far more important issue of the fundamental dispositions needed for what Michael Fullan calls “The New Pedagogy,” which is learning how to learn. The result is students who are bored and struggle with the relevancy of their time in school, and teachers who are stuck with an imposed, limited way of imagining the why and what of schools.

3. Given the above, teachers are then ignored in the ed reform conversation in favor of charismatic, and rich, corporate innovators and their ilk, because, although teachers are set up to fail within the parameters created by policy makers, they are also blamed for this failure and accused of protecting the status quo when they are actually working to protect the souls and imaginations of the students they work with from the corroding effects of a hyper- achievement oriented culture.

It’s crazy.

The Proper Use of Education

Wendell Berry, from his still all too relevant essay on the after effects of 9/11, Thoughts In the Presence of Fear.

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first. (Emphasis mine)

First published in Orion Magazine

What We Talk About When We Talk About Learning

What do we mean when we talk about learning?

And how often do schools talk about what we mean when we talk about learning?

My sense is, we’re not clear on what we mean, and we don’t talk about it.

Learning is one of those words that becomes the air we breathe- we don’t see it so we’re not fully conscious of its presence or how it works on us.  And though learning is ostensibly the fundamental purpose of schools, we really don’t know what we really mean when we speak of it.

So we’re left with a vague conception of learning that generally means something like ‘acquiring knowledge,’ and this is a vague conception that can thus be measured by high stakes, standardized testing.  The vacuum left by our lack of clarity is filled with those (including, too often, us educators) who unthinkingly behave in accordance with these unspoken assumptions, and we’re left with a culture that determines the end purpose of learning to be an individualistic climb up the ladder of status, confuses  ‘achievement’ with learning, allows test scores and grades to serve  as evidence of  ‘learning,’ and abuses kids who are left harried, bored and robbed of their own personal engagement in the intellectual life.

In contrast to this, Gert Biesta has contributed a phrase that beautifully describes the task of education as a process of ‘coming into presence.’  I submit that this is what we truly want for our students:

While learning as acquisition is only about getting more and more, learning as responding is about showing who you are and where you stand.  It is about what I have called elsewhere a process of ‘coming into presence.’  Coming into presence is not something that individuals can do alone and by themselves.  To come into presence means to come into presence in a social and intersubjective world, a world we share with others who are not like us.  Coming into presence also isn’t something that we should understand as the act and the decision of pre-social individual. This is first of all because it can be argued that the very structure of our subjectivity, the very structure of who we are is thoroughly social…But it is also, and more importantly, because what makes us into a unique, singular being- me, and not you- is precisely to found in the way in which we respond to the other, to the question of the other, to the other as question.”   (Emphasis mine)

Learning is not some abstraction that can be acquired, regurgitated and easily measured.  It is a process that is concrete and completely dependent upon the minute by minute judgement of living humans who are far from working in accordance with a script.  And the intention of such an education is to ‘call into presence’ the power and uniqueness of our own personhood.

Biesta continues,

If education is indeed concerned with subjectivity and agency, then we should think of education as the situation or process which provides opportunity for individuals to come into presence, that is, to show who they are where they stand.  What does it mean to provide such opportunities? It first of all requires a situation in which students, learners, are indeed able to respond, are indeed able to show who they are and where they stand.  This not only means that there must be something that can respond to, that there is a situation in which learning is not confined to acquisition and copying.  It also requires that educators and educational institutions care about what their students think and feel and where they are allowed to express their thoughts and feelings.”  (Emphasis mine)

The interior lives of students matters if our concern involves the students’ subjectivity and agency.  If we care about authentic learning, then we must necessarily care about students’ subjectivity and agency.  (And if that is not our concern, our current approach of learning as regurgitation and testing is working fine.  Let’s just be honest about it.)  And let’s be clear about what we mean by learning.

Please read the rest of Biesta’s article here– it is rich with insight and well worth your time.

For more on Biesta’s work on ‘learnification,’ see Learnification Part 1: Making Bank Off the Banking Concept and The Importance of the Teacher: Learnification Part 2