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Our Education System Isn't Broken, It's Designed to Create Winners and Losers

Schools intentionally and deliberately under-educate significant portions of our society.


In January, Frontline aired a documentary about Michelle Rhee's tenure as chancellor of DC Public Schools. On that show, Rhee articulated a major argument of education reformers: "I don't think our kids are broken. I think our system is broken." And she was right about this: our kids are not broken. But is our American public school system broken? Historical truth tells us otherwise.

The first public schools in this nation were charity schools for the children of the indigent and immigrants. Curricula pushed assimilation, acculturation, and morality. Schools sought to educate students just enough so they would be suitable for unskilled labor. Management of our unskilled labor forces would come from those who could afford to educate their children in schools not limited to assimilation and acculturation. Schools for the wealthy included the study of languages and religion, philosophy—things that humanize people and make us think.

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We Don't Say 'Negro' So Why Are We Still Using 'Achievement Gap'?

We need to define student outcomes on absolute rather than relative terms, and send the term “achievement gap” back to the 1960s.


This is the final 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.

The term "achievement gap" first showed up in academic papers in the 1960s. It referred specifically to gaps in educational achievement between white and black—then called Negro—students during desegregation in New Jersey. In coining the term, researchers were highlighting the need to expand educational opportunities for black children, which was no doubt a good intention.

I have had a long-standing pinch with the term—though I struggled to articulate why—until I read a recent post by my fellow Teach For America alumna Camika Royal, which helped me more fully explore that discomfort.

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'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.

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We originally wanted to write this post to commend—and recommend—Dr. Camika Royal's thoughtful and courageous article on the term "Achievement Gap" that was recently published on GOOD. In it she argues that the term is a manifestation of white privilege and power, and that Teach For America's use of the term makes it comes across as an organization that doesn’t reflect enough on privilege and power in our work in communities across the country. We are thrilled to share that many groups and individuals in Teach For America, including our president, Matt Kramer, and our recruitment team have recently taken on this discussion of the term "achievement gap" and that this discussion has been in the air for a number of years.

However, as Teach For America alumni and staff members discussing the article together, it was only a matter of time until we wandered into various social media spaces to see other people's reactions. In particular, a thread of responses on Twitter, Facebook, and Yammer (the internal social media platform for TFA staff) led us to conclude that perhaps the reactions to Royal's article were something that commanded more attention than the article itself.

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