GOOD

'Achievement Gap' Debate: The Language We Use Matters

The phrase "achievement gap" is imperfect but the education community should continue to use language to describe patterns in student outcomes.


\n
This is the fourth post in a five-part series from Teach For America corps members and alumni about the use of the phrase "achievement gap" both within the organization and the wider education community.

In education, the language we use matters—our word choices indicate our perceptions and, sometimes, our misperceptions.

In recent years, some educators have argued that the phrase "the achievement gap” contributes to one such misperception. The debate came to a broader audience last fall in a pair of articles—one by educator and historian Camika Royal, and a follow-up on Diane Ravitchs blog. Dr. Royal criticized the use of the phrase "achievement gap" as racist and inaccurate. We're glad she brought more attention to this conversation. But we also believe that the education community needs to be able to recognize and discuss the gap in outcomes—with an understanding that the gap results largely from underlying, systemic disparities in opportunity.

To critics of the achievement gap phrasing, a central problem is that it sets up a false dichotomy between largely white, higher-income students (good) and predominantly lower-income students of color (bad). Critics worry that the phrase suggests culpability on the part of lower-achieving students, when their outcomes are in fact shaped by circumstance and opportunity.

These are legitimate concerns. No one should imply that lower-income students must mimic their higher-income peers in all aspects. We should say here that we are focusing on the achievement gap as a demarcation of income status rather than skin color, though we are well aware of the unfortunate correlations between race and income.

On the other hand, we see value in language that describes the systematic disparities between schools in certain measures of student achievement. How can we express concern that far too many middle-school students in low-income communities don’t know their times tables? Or that half of low-income fourth graders read below the NAEP's "basic" level? Should it not bother us that the gap in test scores between low-income students and higher-income students is growing larger and larger?

Well-calibrated assessments make these trends visible to parents, educators, and policymakers. Raising test scores is not an end in itself—the goal is imparting the meaningful knowledge that well-designed assessments can measure. Not all tests meet this standard, but recent research has confirmed that students of teachers who produce higher test scores also have improved real-world outcomes: higher adult incomes, higher rates of college attendance, and lower rates of teen pregnancy.

Alleviating the "opportunity gap" would reduce disparities in test scores. Provisions ranging from subsidized healthcare to longer school days might increase any measure of achievement. But we need language to describe the outcomes of these efforts, so that we can determine which are most effective. If children from low-income backgrounds continue to perform, systematically, well below children born into wealthier families on measures of skill and knowledge attainment, there is more work to be done. The “achievement gap” allows us to measure this disparity, and is therefore worth calling out as such.

The phrase "achievement gap" is imperfect but we feel strongly that the education community should continue to use language to describe patterns in student outcomes. Defining and discussing these patterns helps ensure that we all remain focused on efforts that lead to long-term student success, rather than on intermediary steps that may or may not help students achieve their life goals.

A version of this post originally appeared at Pass The Chalk

Photo via (cc) Flickr user AfroDad

Articles
via Douglas Muth / Flickr

Sin City is doing something good for its less fortunate citizens as well as those who've broken the law this month. The city of Las Vegas, Nevada will drop any parking ticket fines for those who make a donation to a local food bank.

A parking ticket can cost up to $100 in Las Vegas but the whole thing can be forgiven by bringing in non-perishable food items of equal or greater value to the Parking Services Offices at 500 S. Main Street through December 16.

The program is designed to help the less fortunate during the holidays.

Keep Reading Show less
Communities

For more than 20 years. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has served the citizens of Maine in the U.S. Senate. For most of that time, she has enjoyed a hard-fought reputation as a moderate Republican who methodically builds bridges and consensus in an era of political polarization. To millions of political observers, she exemplified the best of post-partisan leadership, finding a "third way" through the static of ideological tribalism.

However, all of that has changed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in Maine, particularly those who lean left, have run out of patience with Collins and her seeming refusal to stand up to Trump. That frustration peaked with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
via Truthout.org / Flickr and Dimitri Rodriguez / Flickr

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign looks to be getting a huge big shot in the arm after it's faced some difficulties over the past few weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice in the Democratic parties progressive, Democratic Socialist wing, is expected to endorse Sanders' campaign at the "Bernie's Back" rally in Queens, New York this Saturday.

Fellow member of "the Squad," Ilhan Omar, endorsed him on Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
Photo by HAL9001 on Unsplash

The U.K. is trying to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but aviation may become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. by that same year. A new study commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and conducted at the Imperial College London says that in order for the U.K. to reach its target, aviation can only see a 25% increase, and they've got a very specific recommendation on how to fix it: Curb frequent flyer programs.

Currently, air travel accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, however that number is projected to increase for several reasons. There's a growing demand for air travel, yet it's harder to decarbonize aviation. Electric cars are becoming more common. Electric planes, not so much. If things keep on going the way they are, flights in the U.K. should increase by 50%.

Nearly every airline in the world has a frequent flyer program. The programs offer perks, including free flights, if customers get a certain amount of points. According to the study, 70% of all flights from the U.K. are taken by 15% of the population, with many people taking additional (and arguably unnecessary) flights to "maintain their privileged traveler status."

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet