Recently, I've been more and more troubled with the phrase "achievement gap." I was a 1999 Teach For America corps member and recently, in my occasional work with the organization, I've begun to share my concerns about what this concept suggests.
Because of America's racial history and legacy, the cross-racial comparison that holds up white student achievement as the universally standard goal is problematic. Further, 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. And, as with all misnomers, the thinking that undergirds the achievement gap only speaks of academic outcomes, not the conditions that led to those outcomes, nor does it acknowledge that the outcomes are a consequence of those conditions.
As a critical race theorist who understands that, in the United States, whiteness is viewed as precious property, this conceptualization of the so-called achievement gap does not surprise me. Earlier this month I began tweeting about the phrase's problematic nature. This type of cognitive dissonance resulted in raised eyebrows, questions, and pushback—it's curious that when you challenge the language used to describe a phenomenon, those who named the phenomenon, are severely invested in it, and are not implicated in it respond with, "It's semantics." That response represents a shallow, disinterested, and prideful stance. It dismisses the complainants as petty and trite when what is likely more accurate is that those who challenge the misnaming are its victims.
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. What has been misnamed is more complicated than"“to-may-to/ to-mah-toe." Language counts because it suggests, if not highlights, the thinking underneath the words used. Working "with" a community is very different than working "on" a community, just as walking "with" is very different from walking "on." Words count because they indicate place, position, and power.
In a recent interview I was asked how Teach For America could improve its image and relationship in the communities it aspires to serve. What prompted this question was my tweet that, while attending a session at the American Education Research Association's annual conference, a woman from New Mexico complained about Teach For America in her area and referred to its teachers and workers as "colonizers."
Her language was indicative of her regional, cultural, and historical memory. Given her experience, her concerns and complaints were reasonable, real, and similar to those others have of Teach For America and other education reformers: that someone from outside of the community with little to no meaningful or substantial or enduring experience in the community comes in with “new” notions of what learning is, what schooling should be, whose culture matters, and whose is dismissed.
This is the same sentiment that was aroused when Michelle Rhee donned the cover of Time in a classroom, holding a broom. That image, combined with her tough talk about school reform—plus the cultural, regional, and historical memory of black people in Chocolate City—suggested Rhee sought to "sweep out the trash" from DC’s public schools. Similar sentiments, different memory, different language.
In New Mexico, Teach For America affiliates are called colonizers. In New Orleans, some refer to them and other reformers as carpetbaggers. In Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and other places around the nation where massive layoffs of veteran educators have occurred—only to have these same municipalities welcome Teach For America teachers shortly thereafter—corps members have been called scabs. Similar sentiments, different memory, different language.
Language communicates ways of thinking and knowing, and it informs ways of being and doing. This brings us to the language of the achievement gap. I first learned about the achievement gap as a Teach For America corps member.
As a young teacher in Baltimore, I understood that there were trends of difference in how students were performing academically when the data was disaggregated by race and income level. I had lived that reality as the child of working-class black parents who had only completed high school—I attended the elite Central High School in Philadelphia where smart, under-supported black and Latino students were kicked out of the school for a failure to adapt to and/or thrive in the school’s environment. I'd seen how most of the students in Advanced Placement classes were white students whose families had prepared them for the game of weighted grade point average calculations and early college credits. Without parents who had gone to college, I had to learn that game on my own.
With that experience in mind, as a Teach For America corps member, I wondered what this talk of the "achievement gap" meant for me—it always made me uncomfortable, especially when discussing it in a room full of people who do not look like me, as was—and still is—often the case in Teach For America and other education settings.
As a doctoral student, I re-read Asa Hilliard’s essay, "No Mystery," and I began to understand what troubled me about the language used and the concept and phenomenon the language seeks to explain. He wrote:
Note that when speaking of 'the achievement gap' it is understood by virtually everyone that this does not refer to a gap between Africans and Asians or a gap between Africans and Latinos or a gap between Africans and anyone else other than Europeans. Therefore, right away, it seems something more than achievement is being discussed when the gap language is used.
Indeed! One of Hilliard's most salient arguments is the notion that the so-called achievement gap between whites, blacks, and Latinos holds white wealthy students' performance as the standard of excellence without interrogating whether or not their performance is worthy of comparison. Instead of asking if how they performed is excellent, the inter-racially comparative nature of the "achievement gap" suggests that blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, special education students, and those receiving free and reduced-priced lunch should do whatever white students are doing.
In a recent education meeting in Philadelphia where a representative of the billion-dollar William Penn Foundation explained their commitment to education as "closing the achievement gap," I finally had enough. To quote the blog Students Last, "If you care about education, we would like to encourage you to stop." Please stop using this inaccurate, inflammatory, insensitive, and incorrect term to describe the state of historically marginalized students in American public schools.
The idea of the achievement gap has given do-gooders a cause to rally around and throw their efforts into. While this concept and the work that goes into eliminating it props up well-meaning white folks, it reifies notions of black inferiority and condemns black students and educators.
Those of us with racially critical lenses notice that education reform seems overly populated by young white women and under-populated by people who share cultural, ethnic, racial, and language similarities with the students we serve. While this has been an issue in education for some time, be clear that, at this moment when education "reform" is all the rage, accomplishing education reform by removing black educators and replacing them with young, white, and inexperienced cultural tourists demonstrates the pathological nature of this concept. When middle-class liberals and other well-meaning white folks grapple with the so-called achievement gap, what they're really asking is, "What’s wrong with them?"
I encourage you to watch your mouth. You may call the issue an opportunity gap. You may refer to this problem as a wealth gap. Education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings and others have started interrogating the education debt owed to historically marginalized students. But whatever it is, an "achievement gap" ain't merely it—not hardly—so please stop.
Close up photo of a perfect grade via Shutterstock