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Please Stop Using the Phrase 'Achievement Gap'

By the Notebook on Nov 8, 2012 04:21 PM
Photo: Flickr/Mikelo

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared at GOOD.

by Camika Royal

Recently, I've been more and more troubled by 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 about 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 was pictured on 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 that 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.


For the last 14 years, Camika Royal has served urban communities as a teacher and teacher coach. She recently earned her Ph.D. in Urban Education from Temple University.

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Comments (16)

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on November 8, 2012 4:17 pm
Smart not point out serious deficiencies in minority communities because it might hurt feeling. Modern education is so rigorous when teaching the basics. Yeah more self esteem training is what America needs. The right words why more important than right education. Totally agree. So smart.
Submitted by Fletcher (not verified) on February 16, 2013 10:18 pm
An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you ought to write more about this subject, it may not be a taboo subject but generally people don't discuss these issues. To the next! All the best!!
Submitted by John Dewey (not verified) on November 8, 2012 9:15 pm
I teach a section on sociology of education and when I come to the "achievement gap" I am careful to qualify what I mean so it is not understood as a simple or solely race-ethnicity issue but should be understood to include factors of income disparities, culture, and other variables which frequently are interrelated but which may also be separate from racial group and ethnic identity. Of course, I have also previously gone over that "race" itself is a socially constructed concept. Nevertheless, the past history of racial-ethnic discrimination in this country, its residual effects, and that institutional inequalities in current educational policies that objectively constitute present day discrimination, all suggest that it would be a mistake to separate racial-ethnic issues totally from achievement gaps in education either. Whether you want to call them disparities or gaps will not change the underlying reality of the situation.
Submitted by Bioteacher (not verified) on November 8, 2012 9:58 pm
I don't think the achievement gap needs to automatically refer to the african american and caucasian gap in this country. Standardized tests do claim to gauge achievement in our students. If there is a large disparity between races, populations, economic class, what have you, then why not call it what it is? I know that often the racial boundaries are what people point out when referring to the achievement gap, but I don't think that discarding the phrase will help lessen the interest people have in statistical racial divides in standardized test scores. And it's not holding the black students to the so called "white" standard; the achievement is measured on a curricular basis. I think that the real danger here is to racialize an issue and make it an issue that is hostile towards something as universal as academic achievement.
Submitted by Concerned TFA Parent (not verified) on November 8, 2012 11:50 pm
This is the best observation of TFA that I have ever read: When is it OK to Cheat? I did not take a test with that woman. – Bill Clinton Announcer: Welcome back to another issue of “On The Fence,” the weekly television show that reveals what is happening and what isn’t in the School District of Philadelphia. Let’s welcome this week’s host, The Michelle Rhee Professor of Testing Integrity at Liberty University, Doug Lynch. Lynched: Welcome in everybody! We have a great show today with two great guests and a cadre of callers. So, let’s dive in. Today’s guests are new to Philadelphia, courtesy of a program known as Teach for America. Each teacher has personal experience with either cheating or not cheating on standardized tests, and each has plenty to say on this hot topic. Both guest have requested anonymity, so we’ll call them Single White Male and Single White Female. Ladies first. SWF, gives a bit of your personal background. SWF: Hi, Doug. Thanks for having me. I grew up in Utah and attended BYU. As you may know, BYU has very strict personal codes of conduct: no drinking, no premarital sex, no smoking. In other words, the raison d’etre for higher education was denied. This led to an existential crisis on my part. I realized I was going to graduate from college completely unqualified to lead an adult life, which only left me with three career options – the military, the clergy or teaching. Lynched: Very interesting. Though entirely undesirable, each of these careers has much in common. So let’s cut to the chase: How did you wind up cheating? SWF: I was an all girls school in North Philly. The principal was a relentless tyrant. She looked a bit like Qaddafi but lacked his innate charm and flair for fashion. I was going crazy worrying about lesson plans, Do Now’s, objectives, Exit Tickets, my big idea, my small ideas, my data analysis, how many candy wrappers were on my floor. It was a lot. I was constantly crying and feeling sorry for myself. I was getting memos left and right and the principal said that if I didn’t produce good test scores she was going to, and I quote, “ship your ass back to Salt Lake City quicker than Michael Nutter can learn to hate Arlene Ackerman.” Lynched: Wow! SWF: I really had no choice. It was easy. No one paid attention to test security, so I did it. Lo and behold I had the highest scores in the school and the principal rewarded me with her personal assistant’s job when the PA left to become a skiing instructor with TFA’s teacher camp in Boulder. Lynched: Wow! Now, I know you came to regret your decision. What happened? SWF: Well, my principal got a job at 440 and she actually thought I was a great teacher so she promptly removed me from the classroom and took me with her. My new job started out great. All I had to do was go on these walk-throughs, sit in different classrooms, text my boyfriend or buy stuff on the internet and then write three different reports. One teacher was described as terrible, one as meeting standards, and the other as the best teacher ever. What a sweet gig! Lynched: What went wrong? SWF: Well, basically since I was in charge of holding teachers accountable I was totally unaccountable myself. I stopped paying attention altogether and one day I assigned the bad review to my best friend and roommate. Her name was on the lease. She kicked me out and I wound up squatting in the Teacher Jail. The only good thing about it was that it was the same room where they kept Hope Moffett, so I felt like I was part of history. Lynched: That does sound kind of cool. Kind of like visiting Mandela’s cell on Robbins Island. SWF: You should have seen the graffiti. You’d be surprised by how many things rhyme with Ackerman. Lynched: Let’s turn to SWM. What’s your story. SWM: I was in my senior year at Harvard, and like my colleague, was experiencing an existential crisis. I started Harvard wanting to be a Hip Hop artist, so I majored in Black Studies. All of my friends were either in Harvard Business School or heading to Harvard Law school and they began to ostracize me. They felt that I was destined to be a loser or an employee at some lame non-profit. They stopped inviting me to play squash and summer at the Vineyard. I needed redemption and I needed it fast. TFA would help me get that urban street cred and then I could move on to bigger and better things. Lynched: What was the culture around testing at your school? SWM: At Harvard? Lynched: No, your school in Philly. SWM: Well, if you were in the Principal’s inner circle you didn’t even need to give the test. They gave all the goody two-shoes an answer sheet and had them fill in all the test books and put all the other kids in a separate room. They had Pizza Parties and watched this educational documentary called Lean on Me. Whatever. Me and one other teacher refused to capitulate. Lynched: Why? SWM: Believe it or not, cheating was actually harder work than giving the test. I knew that my kids had absolutely zero chance of scoring well, but what did I care? I preferred the sweet silence of the testing room to the chaos of the other rooms. The pizza in North Philly sucks and I would have liked Lean on Me a lot better if that fat kid actually jumped off the school roof when Joe Clarke told him to. Anyway, I knew that even if my scores were rotten I could get a job as a teaching coach with TFA and live the good life. Lynched: Why, then, do you regret not cheating? SWM: My scores did suck and the principal knew it was because I didn’t bother to cheat. She retaliated by giving me an Unsatisfactory. The PFT told me to shut up and play ball and TFA policy forbids and teacher with a bad rating to be a coach after two years. Now I have to be in the classroom for another whole year before I get that job. Can you spell H-E-L-L? Lynched:
Submitted by teachmyway (not verified) on November 10, 2012 8:27 am
That was the funnest truth I have ever read, thanks for writing and sharing.
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on November 9, 2012 4:44 am
Thank you for the article. Race to the Top - Obama's signature education "reform" - continues labeling students by test scores. It has expanded NCLB's focus of evaluating students by test scores. While this affects all students, it is a greater burden on students of color, students with an IEP, students learning English and students from lower income families. In turn, teachers who work with students from these so-called "subgroups" are also penalized because our students don't perform as well as students whose first language is English, students from higher income/resourced homes, etc. Now that Pennsylvania public school teachers will have up to 50% of our annual evaluation based on test scores, teachers with a higher percentage of students in the "subgroup" (e.g. neighborhood schools versus magnet/special admit schools) will be considered sub par. In my opinion, far too many "educators" have bought into the labeling of students. Every meeting we talk "data" as if this has something to do with learning. Some "data" is helpful such as attendance. We need to know why a student isn't attending school so schools can work to make that happen. But, the notion that learning is demonstrated when a teacher teaches a skill (inevitably a direct instruction model), the students are tested on a skill and demonstrates "proficiency," then we know if students are "learning" is extremely narrow. This is the TFA and Mastery "model." While I understand your focus on the white versus African American / Latino(a) dichotomy, white students often perform lower than Asian American students. At Central, there are more Asian American and African American students than white students. Masterman has also had a surge in Asian American enrollment although the largest group by ethnicity is still "white." (Masterman data may be misleading since this is based on its 5 - 12 enrollment. Its high school ethnic enrollment is not reported but it is less diverse than its middle school enrollment which is twice the size as the high school). What about the so-called "gap" with Asian American students? This has also become an issue in college enrollment - especially in California at universities such as Berkeley and UCLA. Ideally, I would like to see students' "achievement" evaluated holistically. There are many qualities that contribute to a nurturing learning environment and community. If students were "evaluated" on how they work with others, their curiosity (which has to be supported), perseverance, creativity, etc, etc, etc., it would provide much better feedback for parents, teacher and the students. Granted, this is more subjective than a multiple choice test but it is what is needed to be socially, emotionally, culturally (and I guess economically) "successful" in life. I can not think of any way the Iowa tests I took year ago were a "predictor" of my current situation.
Submitted by Law Professor (not verified) on November 9, 2012 9:20 am
This post is very thoughtful - and should cause us all to question the "achievement gap" nomenclature exactly as the author suggests. I think the suggestion of "opportunity gap" is very apt. My only concern as a former civil rights lawyer, now law professor, and parent of kids in public school is that we not abandon the standardized tests entirely because they are crucial for identifying schools that are not providing adequate learning opportunities for vulnerable kids. The bubble tests for English Language Arts and Humanities skills are challenging, but my main concern is math. Particularly in elementary school, many teachers find it challenging to teach math - and this causes long term harm to any kids who are "school dependent" (in other words don't have tutors or other outside parties to ensure that they are learning the content). Standardized tests in math shouldn't ever be used to penalize kids - and should be used to determine which schools and teachers are effective in teaching math and which need support. I urge everyone concerned with the future for vulnerable kids - and poor children of color are often the most vulnerable to opportunity gaps - to avoid the binary of data drill or whole child. We obviously need some of both. We need data for attendance as the author suggests, but I would add that data about the development of math skills is crucial. There have been amazing, culturally rooted models for effective math instruction and these should be replicated; but this takes resources and work and many will not choose this focus without an outside lens. Many adults, including teachers, will claim to be lousy in math and merely shrug. Our world requires many more to master math and science skills - and the opportunity gap must be closed.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 9, 2012 12:24 pm
Thank you so much for publishing this, Camika. I can't quite pinpoint when I started feeling uncomfortable with this term to describe why I was teaching as TFA Corps member, but it happened in the classroom, thinking about struggles my students and I faced, filling out those data trackers, and realizing that language like the "achievement gap" simply COULD NOT and DID NOT describe what I was seeing and what my students were experiencing.
Submitted by PeggyMinneapolis (not verified) on November 9, 2012 1:43 pm
Thank you for articulating this idea in a meaningful way for me. I've always been bothered by the term, and I feel that the testing industry has contributed to the negative perceptions because of WHAT is so often deemed worthy of bubble test responses. This frame of reference will be one that I attempt to internalize in my reflections upon student and educator success in the classroom.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 12, 2012 10:19 am
I am a young, white teacher in a Philly "turnaround" school, and I often find myself buying into such colonizing ideologies as "closing the achievement gap." I really appreciate this critique and agree that terms such as "opportunity gap" may describe the problem more appropriately, although perhaps still imperfectly. I do feel a great desire to expose my students to as many of the different opportunities that I and other students of privilege have had access to. At the same time, I realize that this can only be part of my approach- I also need to meet my students where they are, both in terms of their past opportunities and also their visions of the future, which may or may not match those of their white, privileged counterparts. I know this is not a new idea, but one thing that keeps coming up for me is the great levels of achievement that I do observe in my own classroom everyday, achievements that are not measured on standardized assessments or classroom walkthroughs, such as: students completing their homework correctly without parent assistance, perfect attendance and uniform compliance, students staying awake for the whole day even when they did not have adequate opportunity for sleep the night before, students who are constantly able to tune out the distractions of inconsistent schedules and disruptive behaviors in order to focus on instructional tasks. These are behaviors that I know I was unable to demonstrate consistently as an 8-year-old, and I am constantly impressed by the resilience of my students that they are able to achieve as much as they do. Thank you, Ms. Royal, for this thought-provoking commentary. I hope to share it with my colleagues as a potential jumping-off point for future conversations.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on November 13, 2012 10:04 pm
Thank you Dr. Royal for your poignant commentary. I found this portion of your commentary to be particularly powerful: "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." The achievement gap is really a misnomer for the opportunity gap. However, the term "achievement gap" is a more palatable name than "opportunity gap" because "achievement gap" focuses more on the kids, families, and teachers, instead of the resources that go into education and the large inequities in the distribution of these resources. Education Grad Student
Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on November 14, 2012 7:01 pm
Here's an out-of-the-box solution: Let's become a colorblind society and develop a colorblind education system. Let's embrace MLK's dream of judging a person/student by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. If we could only end of obsession with race and stop measuring everything by pigmentation--POOF! No more racial achievement gap. Food for thought.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on November 14, 2012 9:16 pm
Christopher, Eliminating racism is not as simple as you make it sound. First of all, a colorblind society is one in which people are blind to or ignore the racism that exists. This amounts to sweeping problems under the rug. We live in a fundamentally racist society. The formation of the United States in part rests on: - the colonization of Native Americans and appropriation of land on which they lived; - enslavement of persons of African descent (enshrined in the Constitution until the Union won the Civil War); and - the questionable acquisition of lands formerly belonging to Mexico. There are many people in our country who deny or downplay the existence of institutional racism. Many of these people believe that anyone can pull up themselves by their bootstraps. The social psychological research strongly supports that people DO have prejudice and bias and that prejudice and bias DO matter. People can't just wake up one day and discard everything they have ever learned--including prejudice, bias, racist thinking, classist thinking, etc. I don't have the time at the moment to cite specific studies, but give me a day or 2, and I will post some links here. EGS
Submitted by Truth Squad (not verified) on December 4, 2012 7:06 am
"Doctor" Carmika's diagnosis is hogwash -- and so is critical race theory. You can whine all day long about "blaming the victim," but this is just a form of excuse mongering -- and it ain't gonna help nobody. Public schools are run for the benefit of the unions. Period. Members of said unions seek to minimize their workloads, while maximizing their pay. Blaming students -- their background, their parents, their supposed cultural antipathy to education, etc. -- is a convenient and longstanding alibi for ineffective performance BY TEACHERS in the classroom. In short, public education is a corrupt system, a politicized racket. And this is true even in the lilly-white suburbs (but at least in those settings, the behavioral issues are somewhat less pronounced), Here's the answer (and upwards of 40% of public school teachers have themselves embraced it): Get your kids out of the public schools pronto, before they are ruined permanently. Otherwise, your kids will have to resort to claptrap such as critical race theory to explain/justfiy/rationalize, for the rest of their lives, their own shortcomings. And if you're unable to afford private or parochial schooling, the answer is to be found in school vouchers. (Which are Constitutional, by the way.) (But for all of you rear-guard educrat reactionaries, critical race theory remains appealing. doesn't it? Because with critical race theory you never have to take personal responsibility for your own sad sack-dom....) Dig it!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 4, 2012 7:22 am
The new racism, new bottle - same old nasty wine. No accident they see charters as promoting their goals.

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