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.
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.
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.