Can We Be Honest? Probably Not

If we were really honest with ourselves, and we’re not, we would be forced to come to the conclusion that the so-called “achievement gap” isn’t going anywhere soon.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not giving up.  I will continue to work, educate, learn and do all I can to make this gap go away.

It’s just that I continue to despair at the degree of denial we are operating within.

Let me explain directly.

The “achievement gap” is a frame created and maintained by white dominant culture.  This frame functions to externalize the problem.  The lack of “achievement”  within this frame, is a problem with minorities who are affected by it, and all efforts are therefore directed to changing minorities, those who own the problem.  (See here for more of my concerns with the language of “achievement”.)

See how nifty that works?  The problem is “those” people.

In addition to externalizing the blame, the frame of the achievement gap also  individualizes the blame.  If we just change “those people” we can solve the problem.  This logic of this as a “people problem,” leads to the tired, failed rhetoric such as “the number one factor in student performance is the quality of the teacher.”  Even though, as scholar Elias Isquith says, “… pretty much all honest education reformers now acknowledge, teachers are not the number one impact on whether a child escapes poverty. The number one impact is family [and] the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood.”  

Again, don’t get me wrong, the frame has done some good.  The data it provides is so incontrovertible that we are no longer able to deny that there is a problem.

It’s just that language of “achievement gap” obscures what the problem is.  It’s not a people problem.

The problem is that we have an equity gap.  Our white dominant, competitive culture that is oriented around “achievement” simply works in ways that privileges some at the expense of others. And, if we were honest, we would recognize that you can’t talk about equity without including race. Yes, poverty is a huge problem.  But all too often speaking about poverty becomes an excuse for not talking about race.  And race and poverty are all too often tied up with each other.

By way of quick example, my state of Michigan has created the Education Achievement Authority as a state run district to “turn around” the state’s lowest performing schools.  It’s a technical solution to this people problem of underachievement.  Addressing the achievement gap was the excuse for doing so.  It is no coincidence that those 15 schools taken over by the EAA fall within the boundaries of Detroit, a city that is over 80% black with a poverty rate of close to 40%.  As the Metro Times has recently revealed, those children captured by the EAA have been treated as subjects in a poorly run experiment.  This is not education, it is child abuse, but these are children who are invisible, and therefore subject to experimentation that maintains the invisibility of its abuse.

Detroit is separated from Oakland County by one road.  Oakland County is among the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States with a population of over a million.  Its population is close to 80% white.  None of its public schools has been taken over by the EAA.

One road.

So, this might lead to some questions. But that will make us uncomfortable.

I’ll ask anyway.

How can two areas that are so different in make-up, in wealth, in race, in privilege, be separated by one road?  How can one be so white and so rich, and the other be so black and so poor?

Senator Paul Ryan and others would say this is a cultural problem.  That there is a “culture of poverty” that perpetuates this division.  His frame thus insinuates that the problem is with minorities.

He’s wrong.

It’s an equity problem, and you can’t address equity in this country without addressing the historical context of race.  As Paul Thomas writes, “…race is a marker in the U.S. for access to equity and the coincidences of poverty and privilege. …If we were to begin to build the U.S.—in both policy and public behavior—around goals of equity for all, then segregation would either be eliminated or reduced to a dynamic that is no longer a marker of injustice…

You simply can’t address equity without addressing the dominant culture of whiteness.

But this is something that the evidence says we just aren’t ready to be honest about.


9 responses to “Can We Be Honest? Probably Not

  1. Thanks. Not having money can be solved by having money and all that go4es with it. We briefly tackled this during “the war on poverty”–but other priorities (like war) got in the way. Now we’ve distracted ourselves with either blaming teachers or the bad habits of the poor. Imagine what would happen if the test scores of the poor outranked the rich or that they were interspersed equally! That means that some well-to-do families would be at the bottom???? We’d immediately know that there was something wrong with the test scores–and in fact psychometricians wouldn’t allow it to happen. Not because they’re racists but because the rank order is supposed to correlate with later success i life (and IQ scores) or it’s suspect.

  2. I agree that the achievement gap isn’t going anywhere soon. Nor is it ever likely going anywhere. I don’t agree that it is a frame created and maintained by white culture. If it was then how do you explain Asians ? Why are they not negatively affected by the white dominant culture ? Hasn’t the white dominant culture since the 1960’s struck down every discriminatory law and implemented affirmative action in education, employment and civil service? Hasn’t the dominant white culture since the 1960’s in education been cultural Marxism and theories such as white privilige ? Has the achievement gap decreased since the 1960’s ? What about the achievement gap between whites and Asians. I would like to hear your explanation for that .

  3. By the way, which side of the road separating Detroit and Oakland county do you live on ?

    • 1. The question of where I live again shrinks the frame of the argument to individual choice and ignores the larger contextual issues involved. This is what I call the “Donald Sterling Mistake.” Everyone was rightly upset upon hearing NBA team owner Sterling’s comments. However, by themselves, Sterlings words were simply the racist, rambling, comments (which he said in what he thought was private) of a lonely, doddering fool whose girlfriend baited him into what she knew he would say. The real issue is the practices and policies that allowed him to leverage his racism and thus make enough money to own an NBA team in the first place. (For instance, At issue is not his personal character, but the broader context of institutional racism. At issue is not me, or you, but the practices and policies that function to benefit one group of people at the expense of others. So yes, I live in Oakland County. If the hope is to catch me in inconsistency between my stated values and my life, have at. (The well known ad hominen attack.) Because I’m a fallible, imperfect human being, I have no doubt if you look you’ll find plenty of this. The problem at hand, though, is the pattern of practices and policies that allow me a choice that others don’t have.

      2. For thoughtful consideration of Asian as the “model minority” and the achievement gap, see and

      • So Bill, I was searching for another post and ran across this one. I was also struck by your Oaland county comment and I think it was appropriate for Brian to point out that you live in Oakland county since you did not originally in your post. I agree that that impacts of a racism still exist by the way, but yes, your stated values are inconsistent with your life and you brushed it off way too easily above. Why not move to the other side of the line since you are completely devoted to writing about and impacting the other side of the line. Well, almost completely, to the point that your own comfort is impacted, I guess. For those aware of the comfort in which you live, it’s hard to not see the hypocrisy in so much of your writing and in the blame you consistently place on those who live on the same side of the line as yourself.

      • I certainly agree to your point about my hypocrisy. (See more on that on the link below.) And, because you know me well enough, I have no doubt that you could find lots more.

        Since we’re talking about me, I’ll share that I experience this weird dynamic. (What follows is a simplification, but I hope it makes my point.): That is, when I try to extend my compassion to those beyond my social position, I get angry at what I perceive to be injustice. When I get angry at what I perceive to be injustice, I get idealistic about how I think we should be addressing those injustices. When I get idealistic about how I think we should be addressing these injustices, my own hypocrisies are revealed. So I’m left with the option of not extending my compassion but maintaining my comfort, or extending my compassion but revealing my hypocrisy. Sucky choices. So I try, however inconsistently, to extend my compassion with the hope that the tension the revelation of my hypocrisy creates can push me to continue to learn and grow. As far as which “side of the line” I stand on, I try to side with those who believe that all of our fates are necessarily intertwined together. I am imperfect in this also, and it certainly reveals more hypocrisy, but I hope to stumble imperfectly forward and trust that I will continue to learn and grow.

  4. As stated in this article , the Asian/ white achievement gap is due to cultural factors, as are all achievement gaps.

  5. Here is another view point on the gap at the end of this article from a non-educator sane person .

  6. Bill,
    As you know, the “achievement gap” is a politico-corporate invention created to allow for all sorts of misguided “reforms” in education. And its continued use — an unexamined and near sacred focus, for example, of my own children’s affluent District — certainly obscures the historical racial and economic disparities you note. That said, the “AC” term ALSO captures quite well the politics and longstanding sentiments of traditional K12 that believed (and still believe) in the possibility that education can (single-handedly) transform and elevate and so on. Indeed, the term has been so powerfully deployed because it draws on that older bit of education ideology. In short, I don’t see how you or any other educator (K12 or higher ed) drive the conversation to where you want it to go without acknowledging that “achievement gap” discussions aren’t entirely of what some like to term the “neo-liberal” age. Those discussions are old, embedded in K12 culture that seeks so bravely now to pierce what is their own ideology thrown back at them.

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