Let’s Stop Using the Term ‘Achievement Gap’

Notasulga, Alabama 1915

Earlier this week, while posting my black education history fact of the day, I was reminded of something: The exclusion of Black students from the public education system in this country predates the formation of the United States as a sovereign nation.

On February 13, 1635, Boston Latin School opened as America’s first public school. Blacks were (specifically, intentionally) barred from attending, even though there were a number of free blacks living in the region at the time. (Massachusetts was also a big slave-holding state, and a major center of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th century, but even the free black students could not attend the “public” school.)

When we talk about returning the power of education back to states and eliminating the federal Department of Education, we have to first examine the record of individual states in educating black children throughout the years. Many of the states recognized as having the best public education system also have the greatest inequities, caused not by inferiority or an inability to learn, but by persistently unequally funded and underresourced schools whch have maintained a de facto separate and unequal system of public education for students within the state. We have to examine the record of states on being accountable to not just black children (though it is black children who have been intentionally excluded since the arrival of foreigners on this land), but English Language Learners and children of other minority groups, children with disabilities.

And while even the federal government has not done enough to ensure appropriate access to quality education for all of these groups, it has to be the role of the federal government to set and enforce an educational standard around access for every student in the country.

According to former House Education Committee Chair George Miller, it is the Constitutional responsibility of the federal government to “ provide a first-class education to every child and young person … in the country,” a responsibility which many states, even the country as a whole, have failed to uphold. Miller pointed out that over the years, many states “ weren’t meeting that constitutional obligation to poor and minority students and students with disabilities,” an issue No Child Left Behind initially sought out to remedy, he said.

Crossville, Tennessee 1935

This is elementary education we’re talking. When you get to higher education, the disparities are even worse. That persistent underfunding of neighborhood schools continues through to persistent underfunding of historically black colleges and universities, which were only established because black students after Reconstruction, both newly-freed and never-bound, were not permitted to attend the existing institutions of learning in this country.

During all of the ire around Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education, I saw one heated Twitter exchange in which one black woman expressed concern for the future of education of her children, while a white, gay man expressed a different viewpoint, but said he is also part of a vulnerable population.

But there is no more vulnerable position than that of a black/brown child/family in a country which is built on the exclusion of black and brown people. While other races have been oppressed throughout the history of this country, they have found acceptance and relief by joining in the hatred and oppression of black people, leaving only those with darker skin hues at the bottom of the totem pole of vulnerability.

There was a presentation I attended on a college campus a few years ago: Debbie Irving was talking about white privilege, and her journey to realizing her own. She put a sheet of paper on an easel, drew a horizontal line across the center and asked the audience: “Who is privileged?” She started writing terms like “Christian” and “Wealthy” and “Male” and “Educated” and “Straight” above the line. Beneath the line — the UNprivileged — the counterparts: “Non-Christian,” “Muslim,” “Poor,” “Woman,” “Uneducated,” “LGBT.” This went on for several rounds before anyone got around to mentioning race.

I finally couldn’t take it any more and raised my hand to say, “White is its own privilege — that needs to exist before any of these other factors. Most of these other factors, with the exception of maybe gender, you’d have to disclose before you’d be discriminated against. But race is highly visible, and is the number one factor used to discriminate against one group and promote privilege for the next.” This was not a revelation. There were lots of Amens, though also lots of uncomfortable glances. But no disagreement.

When we talk about an academic achievement gap in this country, we must do so in the context of an opportunity gap, which has said to black and brown children that they are not worthy of accessing the same quality of education as their white peers. We must talk about it in the context of implicit (and explicit) bias that educators and assessment authors bring in, which continue to box these children out, even after the courts said you must let them in. We must talk about it in the context of all of the teacher turnover and instability in their schools, because of the high pressure environments facing the teachers who are forced to work with too few resources, and, yes, the high numbers of unprepared or uncommitted doers-good who go to teach children in the hood without any ability to identify with those students’ lives. We must talk about it in the context of intentional federal policy which has failed our most vulnerable students.

The academic achievement gap is an adult problem; it’s less a reflection of the students it measures than an indictment on the failure of the adults entrusted with providing a quality education for all students in this country.

Images can be found here and here, courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.