“Achievement” or “Opportunity” Gap? (by Guest Blogger Chelsea Holland)

Why Should We Stop Using the Term “Achievement Gap”?

standardized test“In Beloved, Toni Morrison taught us that usually”definitions belong to the definers—not the defined.”” “To those who are defined—who carry the weight and the scars of inaccurate, malicious words—language matters.” Wow, this quote from the article “Please Stop Using the Phrase ‘Achievement Gap’” really struck me. How often do you stop and think about the meaning of the words we are using, or the phrases we are saying? Not often. “Language counts because it suggests, if not highlights, the thinking underneath the words used.” “Words count because they indicate place, position, and power.” As with so many other things people who hold power are the ones who get to decide things. And at the same time I believe that they are often oblivious to some of the true problems that are happening.
Avoiding Inaccuracy
In this article the author states that the term “achievement gap” is inaccurate because it blames the historically marginalized, under-served victims of poor schooling and holds whiteness and wealth as models of excellence. I’m reminded of the discussion we had in class about another article that said that the gap in testing scores is consistently 8 points. This means that students are learning at the same rate, but some students are starting further behind. The achievement gap is only looking at the outcomes and not what is leading to those outcomes, or how the outcomes are consequences of those conditions.
 After reading this article and considering some of the points the author makes I agree with her and believe that “achievement gap” isn’t the best phrase for what is going on. “Opportunity gap” would be a better phrase. I do see why “Achievement” is being used, simply because it’s about the gap in the scores. However, there is a bigger picture we should be looking at about what is causing the gap and how students opportunities prior to school make a difference. It’s no coincidence that students that are born with certain privileges are getting higher scores, and this is a problem.
Questions for You
How can we close the gap? How can we get to those students who have less opportunities are work on prevention and less on fixing the gap? Do you think there is a problem with the term “Achievement gap”? Why do you think that is the term being used?



14 thoughts on ““Achievement” or “Opportunity” Gap? (by Guest Blogger Chelsea Holland)

  1. I think the reason why the term “Achievement Gap” is being used is because, on the surface, that’s what it is: what an underprivileged student is gaining is less than his counterpart. That’s what the results are, and that’s the clear message that is being made. But, like posted, it doesn’t look at the fact that, yes, there is a gap, but the students are learning at a constant rate; it’s not that the students aren’t ending where they should be, it’s that they started behind. They related it to a race in one of the articles and that’s what this is: If you start 10 feet behind the Start Line while another person started at the Start Line but you both are going at the same rate, of course you’re not going to make it to the finish line before or even at the same time as the other person.

    The problem with “Achievement Gap” is that it’s ‘achievement’, an after-the-fact thing. But we wouldn’t or can’t call it the “Progression Gap”, because the only way we assess students is through tests and where they place: an after-the-fact thing.

    • Lisa, do you feel that any factor (peer influences, school funding, teachers expectations, level of education parents received, just to give some examples) promotes or influences the achievement gap more than any other. Or is it just a candy bag of factors that all contribute equally, making the closing of the “achievement gap” an impossible dream?
      Greg Sevilla

      • I think that the level of education that parents have is definitely a major influence on the achievement gap. Because the achievement gap is, deducting from the given information, is apparent before a child enters school. And if the parents’ education level is low, then that will also be apparent in the education level of the child starting school: generally speaking, parents with lower education can’t really provide all the educational stimuli that children need before going to school compared to parents with a higher education. And this is me speaking from personal experience, from parents with no American education and starting school at the lowest possible level. The other factors you listed are great examples but because most of them seems, to me at least, to be factors that influence the gap during schooling instead of before, they could have a different affect.

        Not meaning to toot my own horn, but being where I am now (in college and all that good stuff), I do believe that it is possible to close the “achievement gap” because like I said, I started at the bottom and seeing where I ended up, most definitely on the upper end of the spectrum, I believe it’s doable. But it really depends, first and foremost, with the kids and what they’re willing to “achieve.”

      • Lisa is right, I think, when she mentions that how much the kid wants to achieve matters. I just read Joseph Frank’s obituary – dead at 94: never got a bachelor’s degree, did poorly in school but ended his career as a much-honored Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, having written a cornerstone of 20th century literary biographical research. What kind of child was he?

        We are dealing with issues that go well beyond sociopolitics, aren’t we? What makes one think of the future, dream, work towards something that is hardly there yet? How would the government interpret Joseph Frank’s poor achievements as a schoolchild?

        I think that we have so many intertwining factors that it is impossible to determine what one ought to do for sure. I do believe, however, that one thing that does make a difference is the teacher who can see that, beyond Frank’s lack of interest and application to his studies, there is a form of love, a talent, a vocation. The true teacher can see such things, and nurture and encourage them. Sometimes the parents won’t do it, and that’s more important than the grades. I am using Frank’s example as an incitement of sorts, because clearly in his case the very idea of an “achievement meter” is hardly applicable. It’s safe to imagine his real achievement to have been higher than that of the top 10% of his class. And it is kind of hilarious to imagine politicians making up policies to fix up poor Frank’s situation.

  2. It would be interesting to examine some of the underlying premises in the usage of the term “achievement gap”. How are we to understand the word “achievement” here? There is an assumption that a student “achieves” something when he or she masters the topic of a test, in the sense that this achievement is a merit. This word is used asymmetrically, however. If we say that economic and racial factors contribute directly to such a merit, we ought in the same measure understand the achievement in a different key. For example, a child of the “underprivileged” (to use the current buzzword) who masters a topic in school achieves “more” than a “privileged” child by virtue of the hidden difficulties he faces, even though the grades might be the same.

    I am against this terminology because it is condescending and ignores the reality of the so-called privileged as well. People take as a given that well-off kids live in perfect home environments. That is a mistake and does, in my opinion, betray a lack of good faith in people. It’s just as bad as expecting low-income families to be by definition incapable of providing a healthy home environment for children. In the same token, if we are unable to measure how much kids learn by virtue of their own abilities, we would have to create two measures: one for the abilities of the kids who do not fall under the category of low-income, “underprivileged”, and another for those who don’t. In which case we would not really be measuring the same thing.

    I also think that there is a pernicious view going on in society that attaches so much promise to education (which is why NCLB is wrong from the very ideological foundation). You cannot educate people on the basis of what their future will look like. Because nobody can tell a child that. What we can do, however, is to impart a sense of intrinsic value, in that learning becomes a good in itself, and prepares children to face their challenges without the predisposal to disappointment. A good education affects the economy but cannot determine it, and nobody can guarantee a future. Believing it is the job of politicians and the government to insure that is a mistake. But the teachers can teach kids to love learning and learning for its and their OWN sake. If that is not “empowerment” (another buzzword today), I don’t know what is. In the end, it is this undiminished love for what one does that becomes indissociable from one’s achievement.

    • I think this may be a little off topic, but some of the things you posted made me think of a Ted talk I watched the other day. It was “Every Kid Needs a Champion”

      This woman Rita Pierson has been a teacher for 40 years. One part of the video that really stood out to me was she was grading tests one time and out of 10 a student missed 8 questions. Instead of putting a (-8) on his test she put a (+2). He asked he “is this an F?” and she said “yes, but you’re on a roll” or something like that. She really empowers her students, like what you said! I think she should be a model for all teachers and how they should be empowering their students regardless if they got 10/10 or 2/10.

      • Chelsea you make a good point about empowerment with the students. No matter how bad or good someone does on a test or any other schoolwork. There can always be positive constructive criticism that can be given to the students, to encourage them to “want” to do better. The kids seem to feed off of the positive feedback. The example you gave about the child only getting 2 questions correct out of 10, and the teacher tells the student “they are on a roll” shows that the teacher is trying to give them a little push to get started. This can be used in classrooms to help work towards making narrow down the achievement gap by empowerment and positive feedback.

    • There is no possible way to tell anyone’s future. Nelson, I like the direction you have going with teachers, teaching children to love learning and learn for their own sake”. If children are taught the skill sets to be able to overcome any obstacle they may face in life. I think it is thru these skill sets that give the students the best possible approach to being successful in life.

      • It is really fascinating to observe how the emphasis on the lack of community in our society hides the lack of self-reliance that individuals have. One would think it would be the other way around: there is a lack of community because everyone thinks one is self-sufficient. But no!

        I guess we might be getting at the heart of good pedagogy here! That would be a good discussion topic for the class: do you guys think self-reliance creates community? I think one needs the community to learn self-reliance, and the community needs self-reliant individuals to remain a community and not shatter into pieces, becoming mere society. When one loses self-reliance and becomes completely dependent on community, it becomes a social problem, doesn’t it? Sounds like a paradox, but is it? My grandpa was a Holocaust survivor and was also the most optimistic man I’ve ever met. That seemed like a paradox, but it wasn’t.

  3. The first thing to do in order to close this “achievement gap” is to make sure that everyone is on the same level. By that, I mean that every one should be able to start an education learning program at the same time that others do.

    The reading about the kids who were starting further behind than others, but learned at the same rate just shows that it isn’t about achieving, but more about opportunity. As someone who was behind when I was younger (I didn’t know how to read until first grade unlike my comrades who had learned in pre-k), It wasn’t that I couldn’t achieve as much as my peers, my family just didn’t have the funds or the time to put me through a preschool or hooked on phonics. This is why I agree with you, Chelsea, about using the term “Opportunity Gap” rather than “Achievement Gap” because it isn’t about the level of achieving rather than the opportunity to achieve at the same time.

    To me, that is the first step in to closing this gap; To make sure that every one has the same chance to learn at the same time.

  4. Chelsea, I really liked the quotes you pulled from the article because I feel that they are so relevant and powerful. In one of my other social justice classes we talk about this idea of how powerful our language is. We are sending messages with the way we talk about groups of people and a lot of the time we do not even realize we’re doing it. I don’ think achievement gap is the right terminology but I also think the issue is bigger than just the naming of the issue at hand. This is a complicated topic and one that has a lot of weight behind it. One of the articles that we read discussed how early education and starting everyone out with that could really help that issue of starting behind. The fact that Oregon has some of the most expensive pre-school is a problem in itself and could be a huge factor in why there is this so-called “achievement gap.” I think there are many layers involved in this but it’s possible to make a difference.

  5. Chelsea,
    With the ‘gaps’ that exist, there was an interesting article that illustrates that the ‘gap’ begins at such a young age. Not only do we need to strengthen our pre-kindergarten teaching, but we need to work with parents to teach them how to build the foundations for our youth to be the best students that they can be.
    In ‘Bridge Achievement Gap Early – Multnomah Study Urges’ there is a passage that really stood out –
    ‘Imagine you had a race with two runners who both ran at the exact same pace…but you started one five seconds earlier. If you let them both run for exactly four minutes to see if they could get to a certain finish line, only one would get there.’
    It appears that many students are progressing at the same rates, that is most students make similar gains, but they start at such different levels. We need to invest time and money into making it so our students are starting at the same levels so we can insure that with our efforts they finish and learn at acceptable levels.
    With the studies that are coming out, we need to pay attention and shift the paradigm of how we educate our youth.

  6. I like what Meagan and others have said about the need to close the achievement gap. I don’t think it matters quite as much what it is called. I understand that achievements and benchmarks are what are used to judge students and these are not always fair. In this case when we consider that the gap is a constant one, we realize that judging by “achievement” is not accurate. Opportunity does have a lot to do with it. The word opportunity though, in my mind, can carry with it a sense of complacency. Some people have opportunities, and some don’t. Some are lucky and, some aren’t. Life is not fair, and it is what it is. I’m not sure calling this problem by another name will make it any less of a problem. Maybe a new name would be nice, but until the issue is solved by starting children out on a more equal education playing field I’m not sure what a new moniker will really achieve. If it were changed, it would have to be very well thought out.

  7. Chelsea, honestly, i never looked at it from that point of view before but you make a good point in your message. As for the questions you asked, i have no idea why it is called an “achievement gap” because that is not what is really going on. Like you said, the standardized tests look at the end result of where the student is academically at, but they don’t look at the progress that is made by the studetnt over time. A students who may have done great on the standardized test may still not have made as much progress as a student who scored lower. When we talked about this subject in class before, my group and i mentioned that a large part of the problem is at the beginning when children are first entering the school system. Kindergarten is really difficult for teachers because they have some children who went to preschool and some who didn’t, and they have some students whose parents had already been working with them while others hadn’t. This causes a large gap in learning, and with the class sizes increasing, even in kindergarten classes, this just makes it easier for children to begin falling behind right away, therefore increasing the so called “achievement gap.” But how do we even begin to repair this huge problem?

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