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What Happens When Black Students Ask What We Mean by 'Achievement Gap'?

Too many educators allow jargon to take the place of being human and define black students without considering what the phrase really means.

This is the first 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.

Before the holiday season tempted me with her wily ways—turkey and latkes, eggnog, and counting down to the New Year—there was a resurgence of discussion among TFA staff members about the validity of the term "achievement gap." This conversation isn't new, but the candid reflections of Teach For America alumnae Dr. Camika Royal have launched a new wake of reactions, including an excellent post from a group of my fellow staff members reflecting less on the privilege inherent in the phrase "achievement gap" and more on the privilege of some of the emotional responses to Dr. Royal's post.

I currently work on Teach For America's Teacher Preparation Support & Development team, and I've been a fan of Dr. Royal's since I first heard her speak at TFA's 20th Anniversary Summit, and when I saw her reflection—and the follow-up posted on Diane Ravitch's blog—I had one main reaction: YES.

My discomfort with the term "achievement gap" came to a head several years ago at a panel discussion in New Haven, Connecticut on the topic of education and the media. The panelists were local education reporters and the audience was composed of teachers, students, and community members, including a fair number of TFA corps members, alumni and staff. Toward the end of the discussion, a brave young man who attended one of the schools where TFA corps members teach raised his hand and asked what the panelists meant when they kept saying "achievement gap."

In this moment, my internal compass shifted. I began to see that the phrase didn't fit for two key reasons:

First, no one answered this student's question particularly well, which indicated to me that we were using the term in a way that we'd never bothered to define clearly—and possibly some of this fuzziness came from no one on the all-white panel wanting to say, "Well, we mean the difference between the academic achievement of our kids and you."

Second, we were speaking in a way that made clear the definition was intended for those "outside the gap." Although we talked for almost two hours, no one had bothered to define the phrase. We'd allowed jargon to take the place of being human and essentially had a conversation about this young black man as if he'd never been in the room.

When Dr. Royal, quoting Toni Morrison, notes that "definitions belong to the definers—not the defined," that hits the nail on the head. That night in New Haven, the definers threw around a term that held no resonance for a brave student from a local high school.

I don't share this story to vilify or point fingers, except the finger I point at myself. This student's question held a mirror up to my own privilege. After gaining access to a college and post-graduate education that allowed me to offer some critique of my own subpar public-school days—when the teenage me would have had a choice hand-gesture for anyone from outside my rural town who tried to bucket me into what was an achievement gap born of economic divide—I'd somehow lost sight of the privilege of the definer. I'd become the definer.

Since that evening years ago, my virtual silence on the subject has been largely a product of feeling like I didn’t have a great alternative to propose. "Opportunity gap" is appearing more frequently—you may have seen Arne Duncan tweeting about it. I think that’s closer to being accurate.

In any case, Dr. Royal is correct: Words count. Whether we use "achievement gap," "opportunity gap," or something else altogether, let us choose our words wisely, and with heart, and continue to engage each other with respect.

A version of this post originally appeared at Pass The Chalk

African American teenaged student studying at home image via Shutterstock

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