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:


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