Tag Archives: Achievement Gap

Silencing Dialogue: More on Turning the Deficit Gaze

In speaking about and thinking about the achievement gap, I am beginning to empathize greatly with the educators of color that Lisa Delpit quotes in her article, The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,

Delpit shows the way that experiences that are beyond the range of those in the dominant culture are unable to be taken into consideration by the dominant culture.  Minority voices are thus silenced.  As a telling example, Delpit quotes a Black woman principal who is working on her Phd:

“If you try to suggest that that’s not quite the way it is, they get defensive, then you get defensive, then they’ll start reciting research. I try to give them my experiences, to explain. They just look and nod. The more I try to explain, they just look and nod,just keep looking and nodding. They don’t really hear me. Then, when it’s time for class to be over, the professor tells me to come to his office to talk more. So I go. He asks for more examples of what I’m talking about, and he looks and nods while I give them. Then he says that that’s just my experiences. It doesn’t really apply to most Black people. It becomes futile because they think they know everything about everybody. What you have to say about your life, your children, doesn’t mean anything. They don’t really want to hear what you have to say. They wear blinders and earplugs. They only want to go on research they’ve read that other White people have written. It just doesn’t make any sense to keep talking to them.”

I would suggest that any attempt to critique the dominant culture is silenced in the same way.  For instance, in Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit shows how this plays out in gender issues. “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they are talking about. Some men.” I want to clearly point out those driving education reform in its current iteration present at best a failed attempt to “reform” a system that, as outsiders, they have little knowledge of, yet hold much sway over because of the power they retain within the dominant culture.  In this process, educators who work with children are marginalized and silenced.

Want a clear example? How about 2 rich, white guys, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, generously offering their take on fixing education.

That quote comes back, “They don’t really hear me.”

And when the unintentional racism that Delpit exposes is combined with the privilege and power of outsiders, the effect is compounded.

That is why Jamie Utt’s recent article, 5 Things Well Meaning White Educators Should Consider if They Really Want to Close the Achievement Gap  is so important.  The article shows the growth of someone who becomes aware of his own racialization as a white person and the effect of that growth. It points out the racist roots of the “achievement gap,” and shows how this deficit model of education, and of so-called “failing schools,” hurts all children.

The article also importantly shows how the deficit model of the “achievement gap” functions to hide the social context of education.

“Many of us fail to acknowledge that terms like ‘the achievement gap’ place the responsibility of change on students – and specifically poor and working class students of Color.

Yet, in my experience offering professional development to educators, most of the White teachers I work with are well-intentioned despite the damage we may be doing with these victim-blaming, deficit-oriented beliefs.

However, when at least 80% of our teachers in the United States are White and the most powerful decision makers tend to be White or are pushing White-designed models of reform, is it any wonder that we inaccurately perceive this country’s educational inequity as being the result of a student-deficit ‘achievement gap’ – a term dating back to White “reformers” of the 1960s – rather than, say, systemic oppression and marginalization?

Utt goes on to show that schools have been designed to serve those of privilege.

“And simply put, when our schools have been set up to serve Whites while excluding all but a few people of Color, it makes sense that White people are far more likely to have an advanced education.

In fact, Black men in the US actually must have a higher level of education than White men to get the same jobs, so even when those who’ve been left out of the system succeed, the deck is stacked against them!”

Utt points out the importance of  understanding the ways that, “…the broader picture where “the historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society ..” have contributed to what scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings has labelled the “education debt.”

“When we refuse to invest properly in the education of those with the least access, we see the results in our test scores and in every other measure of injustice in our society: poverty, employment, wealth accumulation, health disparity, exposure to violence and stress, and so on.”

In the same vein, Paul Thomas writes:

  1. We have failed public education; public education has not failed us.
  2. Education has never, cannot, and will never be a singular or primary mechanism for driving large social change.
  3. And, thus, public education holds up a mirror to the social dynamics defining the U.S. In other words,achievement gaps in our schools are metrics reflecting the equity and opportunity gaps that exist in society.

We know this. We’ve known this.

Who will listen?

Skull Measurements, Achievement Data and the Destruction of the Public School System

In the 1880’s, a white anthropologist named Samuel Morton theorized that the relative intelligence of different races could be determined by measuring and comparing skulls.  He then took to measuring hundreds of skulls and concluded that based on his results, of course races could be ranked by intelligence.

Guess who came out on top in Morton’s system?

Yep.  White people.

The bottom?

People of African descent.

And when the evidence didn’t support his theory Morton just rewrote history. He concluded that, according to his measurements, the people of Ancient Egypt were white.

With the passing of time, it is easy to see Morton’s science as a racist imposition of so-called objective science on “reality.”


It’s a little bit more difficult to see the racist impositions of so-called “objective measures” upon reality today, but such impositions nonetheless exist.  And, though they are difficult to see, they are not hard to find. Simply look at any form of measurement that proposes to determine invisible characteristics that are difficult to quantify, such as  intelligence, and then designs a ranking and sorting system that concludes with whites ranked above people of color.  Some measures simply quantify “reality” without ranking and sorting.   Others ostensibly quantify, but actually translate “reality” and call it real just as Morton did.

Let’s try using this filter.  Does it apply to poverty?  No, poverty is a fairly straightforward, visible, measurable characteristic once we agree on a level of income that determines it.

How about achievement in school?

Now we’re talking.

What is it?  It depends on who you ask.

How do you measure it?  I have no idea, especially since I’m not sure what it means, but the superficial and all too easy answer has become, you use a standardized test.

Whose standards are used in a standardized test?  The standards of dominant culture.

What is the organizing principle of the standards of dominant culture?


And what are the results?

Exactly the same ones that Morton arrived at.

Yes.  High-stakes standardized testing takes its place in a long historical line of impositions of racist assumptions upon “reality.” Morton would be proud.

My point is not that standardized tests reflect a reality that students of color are “under-performing” in schools.  My point is that the design and context of the tests are an imposition of a racist frame upon this so-called “reality.” My point is that the tests, like Morton’s measuring of skulls, actually ensure the outcome before the tests are even taken.

History Replicating Itself

Morton was a part of the eugenics movement, an overtly racist scientific attempt to explain racial differences in status by genetics.  This movement has been discredited, but it’s important to remember that in its time it was highly respected as an objective, scientific explanation.   In our time, as Harold Berlak points out in Race and the Achievement Gap, genetics as the explanation of racial differences has been replaced by explanations of culture and history.

“Recently a more subtle form of ‘scientific’ racism has gained some respectability. The inferiority of the Black and brown races is now said to lie not necessarily in genetics but in culture and history. This more quietly spoken academic version of the master-race ideology has also been thoroughly dismantled, yet racist explanations for the race gap persist.”

So the structures that benefit one race over another still exist, but the language used now makes those structures more difficult to see. We know that when we look at DNA there is no such thing as race.  We know that race is a social construction with implications of power. What is more difficult to see is the language used to construct and reify these differences.

How This Works With Standardized Testing

What follows are some of the factors that instantiate racial outcomes into standardized tests and the contexts they occur within:

* Stereotype vulnerability: Berlak discusses a study done by psychologist Claude Steele which explored the differences in how white and black students mentally frame testing situations.  In this study, black students who were told that the test was a valid measure of academic ability and capacity scored much worse than those who were told that the test was a not a measure of ability, but of psychological factors involved in problem solving.  The black students who were told the test was looking at psychological factors rather than ability scored equal to the white students.  The white students scores were consistent in both situations.

“The explanation Steele offers is that Black students know they are especially likely to be seen as having limited ability. Groups not stereotyped in this way do not experience this extra intimidation. He suggests that it is serious intimidation, implying as it does that if they should perform badly, they may not belong in walks of life where their tested abilities are important — walks of life in which they are heavily invested.’ He labels this phenomenon ‘stereotype vulnerability.'”

* The ways in which the curriculum of the dominant culture shapes the schooling experience of students of color: Berlak points to a study completed by anthropologist Signithia Fordham.

“She concludes that for African-American students, patterns of academic success and underachievement are a reflection of processes of resistance that enable them to maintain their humanness in the face of a stigmatized racial identity. She shows that African-American adolescents’ profound ambivalence about the value and possibility of school success is manifest as both conformity and avoidance. Ambivalence is manifest in students’ motivation and interest in schoolwork, which of course includes mastery of standardized test-taking skills….

Fordham found that even the most academically talented African-American high school students expressed profound ambivalence toward schooling and uncertainty that they will reap the rewards of school success. Virtually all African Americans she interviewed indicated that a central problem facing them at school and in larger white society is the widely held perception by whites that African Americans are less able and intelligent and their continuing need to confront and deal with this reality in everyday experience.”

* Racial Bias Built Into Tests:  Many of us are aware of the ways that the unconscious bias of the dominant culture is integrated seamlessly into test questions.  The example often given is the abandoned question from the SAT that asks students a question referring to a “regatta.”  Who knows what a regatta is? People who have enough wealth to provide them access to boats.  The cultural bias is clear. Fair Test explains it this way:

“According to other research, items which facilitate ranking and sorting are often items which, perhaps unintentionally, factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. Such items help create consistency in test results, but they often are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children, who also typically have access to a stronger academic education.”

Less well known is the bias that is built into the scoring of the tests.  Fair Test does an excellent analysis of this in explaining “bi-serial correlation.”

“To obtain higher consistency (and hence technical reliability) on the test, Texas follows the typical practice of using items with the highest correlation values. This procedure means that on items covering the same materials, the ones with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers will be used. Because minority group students typically perform less well on the test as a whole, the effort to increase reliability also increases bias against minorities…

This common test development procedure exacerbates the existing inequities of schooling. When used in high-stakes testing, biserial correlation helps ensure that at least some students who know the material and ought to pass the tests do not. Those students are overwhelmingly low-income, of color, with English as a second language, or have special needs.”

John Loflin nicely summarizes these factors:

“…the standardization of high stakes tests is based on: 1) “normalcy” and epitomized via norm-referencing tests where some will always fail regardless of actual achievement, 2) a history of racial discrimination associated with the testing–particularly in how tests are calibrated–as well as the cultural bias associated with intelligence measurement such as IQ, and 3) the eugenic deficit model of humanity, a model with neither scientific nor moral merit.”

So What?

What does this mean?

It means we simply can not continue to use measures that have unconsciously pre-determined an outcome, pretend shock at the outcome, and then focus all of our energy on changing the outcome after the fact. Instead, doesn’t it make sense to change the conditions that create the outcome in the first place? Doesn’t it make sense to change the conditions of inequality organized around poverty and race?

It means that when we are unavoidably involved in anything to do with “achievement data” we must act with the recognition that such data is not a reflection of ability.  Nor is it a reflection of achievement.  It is simply a marker of privilege. “Achievement data” tells us what we already know from history – our society is full of inequalities, and race and poverty are the organizing principles of these inequalities. This data, taken as real, has become the lever for the current education reform movement that is decimating our public education system.  It follows that the use of it hurts students of color and  white students.  It hurts poor students and rich students.  It hurts all educators who recognize that places of belonging are fundamental to learning, rather than places of ranking and sorting. As school superintendent David Britten eloquently puts it, “I firmly believe the evidence is unassailable that the end game is the complete destruction of the public school system, since it is the one substantial threat to maintenance of class structure, dilution of power, and eventual downfall of an expanding oligarchy.” (In the comments section of this excellent post.)

So let’s top talking about “achievement” and let’s start talking about learning.  Let’s stop standardized testing and instead focus on contextual assessment and useful feedback.

And let’s stop talking about the “achievement gap” and start addressing the conditions of inequality that it reflects.

What Isn’t Being Talked About

It’s true.  I listen to too much talk radio.  And then I get upset.  Particularly when sports talk radio (my indulgence of choice) hosts talk about things other than sports.

Things like the decision to not indict the police in the the Eric Garner case.

Or in the Michael Brown case.

The fact that I listen is on me.

But I rationalize it because this gives me a window into the thinking of a specific but prevalent section our population, albeit mostly male.

And recently I have heard a lot of conversations about particular aspects of particular cases.  Any overarching patterns tend to dissipate (dare I say, defensively dissipate) into minute and concrete points of righteousness.  Conversations where sentences like following are heard from callers and hosts:

“But what are the cops supposed to do with a 400 pound man resisting arrest?”

“But didn’t Michael Brown charge?”

“These are people who had already broken the law.”

You get it.

And who am I to say?  I wasn’t there.  I can’t pretend to know what was going on in specific people’s minds during these incidents.  (Though, to be completely honest, I have some guesses.)

What isn’t being said is anything about the broader pattern that these particulars occur within.

Things like:

The fact that between 2006 and 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country.

Since Travyon Martin’s death on February 26, 2012, (remember, Travyon was shot- and then demonized– attempting to walk through a neighborhood after buying Skittles) and March 27, 2102, 29 black people were killed by security/police.

Most recently, Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy, was shot by police while holding a pellet gun.  (See this.)

More black men are incarcerated in the U.S. as of 2010 than were held in slavery in 1850.

In schools, African-American boys are suspended at a 20% rate compared to a 6% suspension rate for white males, even though, “…according to the Office of Civil Rights, research shows suspension disparities don’t seem to be caused by more frequent misbehavior among students of color, leading to concerns of discrimination.”

How about this, from Colorlines?

“…white men of all classes reported far more troubled behavior than anyone else in the study, but black men suffered uniquely harsh, lasting punishment for their mistakes. Among men who’d dropped out of school, for instance, 84 percent of whites were employed full time at age 22. For black men, however, only 40 percent were employed at that age. And while black and white men from low-income families had similarly high rates of criminal convictions, those convictions mattered far more to the lives of the black men. At age 28, 54 percent of white men with a record were employed full time making an average of $20 an hour; among black men with records, 33 percent were employed, making just over $10 an hour, or half that of their white peers.” (Emphasis added)

I could go on and on.

It makes me wonder:  Is clinging to these specific, concrete points of righteousness a way to avoid the important patterns that connect?

I suggest then, that what is important is not only the particulars of the case of Eric Garner, of the case of Travyon Martin, of the case of Michael Brown, of the case of Tamir Rice, of the case of Renisha McBride, of…..(how long?), but the overall systemic patterns which are not being talked about.

We need, for instance, to not only debate the protests related to each of these cases, and the violence of a few of the protesters, but the underlying systemic causes that lead to the mass protests in the first place.

We need to address the idea that the violence of the oppressed (yes- I said it- even in America- oppressed)  is the language of those whose words aren’t heard.  And that peace requires the listening of those in power.

We need to address the larger pattern of race in America; of how we view race, of how race is avoided and hidden as a factor in virtually all aspects of our lives.  Of how this pattern reflects a system, yes- still, of white supremacy.  Of how, as Ta-Nehesi Coates argues, white supremacy remains “one of the central organizing forces in American Life.”

In this important essay, Coates continues. “There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself.” (emphasis added)

This is what isn’t being talked about.

Which can make it hard to breathe.




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.