We should stop calling it the “achievement gap.”
The language we use is powerful, especially to small children who need all the support and encouragement they can get. Discussions in education must not devalue the lives and experiences of minority and low-income children, who are most affected by education policy. We must call the disparity in education what it is, an “opportunity gap,” instead of implying that low-income and students of color are less than because they do not have access to the tools that would enable them to perform at the same levels as their white middle-class peers.
The Difference Between the Gaps
I often think about a boy I taught in my third-grade classroom who was high achieving and eager to learn, but was stumped by a question asking him to identify a web address. Even though he was well-read, he had little exposure to television or computers at home or at school. I quickly realized that the book, used to prepare students for testing, was assessing something many of us take for granted and not the student’s academic ability.
The achievement gap has gained national attention in recent years and is measured by standardized tests, grades, course selection, high school dropout rates, college completion rates and more. It broadly refers to the disparity in academic performance between groups, but mostly points to the different success rates between white students and their black and Hispanic peers. No Child Left Behind sought to eliminate the achievement gap altogether.
The term opportunity gap addresses the real differences between middle class and low-income schools and the students who attend them. It accounts for the difference in exposure and resources in the form of classroom materials, books, field trips, technology and experienced teachers.
What Time’s Supper?
But the term “achievement gap” does not account for the lack of opportunities and exposure many children of color and low-income students live with outside of the classroom. It neither accounts for the boy in my classroom who was a good student, but had no regular access to a computer or the Internet, nor does it explain the millions of children who go to school in poverty stricken neighborhoods.
The achievement gap ignores cultural differences and the diversity of our country. In my classroom, I often used required tests to inform my teaching. This became even more important after I discovered all my students answered a reading comprehension question that included the word “supper” incorrectly. After giving the same question to them with the word “dinner” instead, they all got it right. Was this a fair or accurate assessment of a group of students who were challenged by a word rarely encountered, especially in their own homes?
Measuring the Ruler
This country has accepted a narrow view of achievement since the inception of schooling. Curriculum, instruction and assessments have been tailored to the needs and cultural knowledge of white middle-class students. The performance of the white middle class is the ruler by which all others are measured. This, along with access to textbooks that hold the answers to standardized tests, explains why white middle-class students perform well on assessments, and why the achievement gap remains.
By using the term “achievement gap” we perpetuate the racist idea that students from minority cultures or low-income backgrounds come from the wrong cultures; they lack the exposure to white middle-class cultural references needed to excel in school, are seen as oppositional in nature, or have parents who are not invested or interested in their education or their futures.
The achievement gap is used to explain why low-income and students of color do not perform at the level of their white middle-class peers. As a result, we are inadvertently erasing the cultures and behaviors that students bring with them to school, instead of expanding the opportunities for them to succeed.
Student achievement and the disparities in our schools are important and should continue to be addressed by teachers, administrators and policymakers. But what is more critical to academic success is the creation of culturally appropriate assessments, curriculums and inclusive classrooms that address the “opportunity gap” that plagues our nation’s classrooms.