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Solutions The "achievement gap"



Proseminar Gabriel Kuriloff


Reframing the Achievement Gap:

The Implications of Perspective for Understanding Solutions

The “achievement gap” is a much talked about, much analyzed, and much disputed phenomenon in American schooling. At its most basic, the gap is used to describe a discernable difference between the academic performance of students of color and that of their white peers. Standardized test scores, a commonly used measure of the gap, show that across the country white students outperform students of color by more than 20 points in both reading and math at all grade levels. While poor students generally perform less well on academic measures than do their wealthier peers, students of color struggle to an even greater extent at all ends of the socioeconomic spectrum (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Rothstein, 2004). Despite extensive evidence for the existence of the gap, there is little in the discourses around the gap that suggest consensus—around the nature of the gap, the causes of the gap, or around potential solutions or methods for closing the gap. The complexity of these discourses is a testament to the complexity and intractability of the gap itself. The basic outline of the gap is clear, but there is a great deal of conflict over its causes, over how it functions, and over the structures that sustain it. Additionally, experts, politicians, policy makers and other interest groups argue over how any given interpretation of the gap is or is not applied to creating a school system or creating a society that promotes greater equity. All of these authors share a common literary approach. They establish the problem and define it in terms of standardized measures. Each author then applies an interpretive lens—educational policy, social class, critical race theory, and the economy of educational practices—and uses this lens to develop a framework that both locates the (or a) cause of the gap in place and time and then proposes possible solutions. Unfortunately, the scale of the achievement gap challenge makes it difficult if not impossible to posit a single cause or even set of causes and solutions. From a policy perspective, while individual recommendations may be valid and important, without a broader context for understanding the achievement of students of color, it is difficult to imagine closing or even coming close to closing the gap. In this paper I will examine a set of frameworks for understanding the achievement gap and I will suggest that without each other, these frameworks are not useful to the policy discourse. By reframing our sense of what achievement difference represents we can begin to experiment meaningfully with potential solutions—some of which must be school based and some of which must go through and beyond the traditional boundaries of the institutions of schooling. This is an intensive undertaking that requires government support through new policy and the modification of existing policy. At the same time, the primary responsible for serious research and development falls, as Ladson-Billings argues, upon researchers and experts in educational practice.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) marked a serious shift in American education policy. The culmination of 50 years of increasing federal involvement in the regulation of public education, NCLB was heralded as a strong response to the achievement gap. The basic methodology of the law—hold schools accountable for improved performance using standardized measurement—assumes that the cause of and solution to unequal learning is located in schools and that improved school practices will result in improved learning and the resultant improvements in standardized test scores. Darling-Hammond (2007), a well known education researcher has been talked about in the media as a candidate for secretary of education in the Obama administration. In her essay, “Race, inequality, and educational accountability,” Darling-Hammond describes an achievement gap that seems to conflate wealth, class, and race. In one section of the essay the author decries funding inequalities as large as a magnitude of ten between poor and wealthy school districts (p. 247). Shortly thereafter, the author turns to the gap as a challenge of race and racism, pointing out that only 50% of students of color graduate high school whereas nearly 70% of white student do (p. 253). Yet perhaps, in part because of her narrow focus on the role of schools, Darling-Hammond discounts all external and internal factors relating to class and race. She concludes, “Obviously, students will not learn to higher levels unless they experience good teaching, a strong curriculum and adequate resources” (p. 258). While Darling-Hammond is likely to be correct that good teaching and curriculum and adequate resources will improve schools, such a narrow focus may disguise more serious causes that underlie and serve to perpetuate the gap. Darling-Hammond outlines the flaws in the NCLB regulations and points to her own set of school-based improvements as more appropriate and effective alternatives and she advocates a massive reinvestment in schools and in teachers. Her perspective, however, may be too close to the daily lives of schools to see the stronger forces that are at work controlling the institutional outcomes.

The solution of massive reinvestment, while compelling from a political perspective and possibly achievable, does not account for what other authors identify as the complex causes of the gap. Rothstein (2004) takes a strong stance against those who would locate the problem and solution to the achievement gap in schools. He explains the failings of schools-based approach:

This perspective, however, is misleading and dangerous. It ignores how social-class characteristics in a stratified society may influence learning in school. It confuses social class, which Americans have historically been loath to consider, with two of its characteristics: income and, in the U.S., race. For it is true that low income and skin color themselves don’t influence academic achievement, but the collection of characteristics that define social-class differences inevitably influences that achievement. (p. 2).

Rothstein challenges Darling-Hammond’s work in this discourse by locating the causes and potential solutions for the gap outside of schools and therefore beyond Darling-Hammond’s scope. Rothstein proceeds to map out how all of the root causes of the achievement gap are the result of social class differences. Socioeconomic, class-based differences account for the academic differences. These socioeconomic factors—ranging from health care needs, to parenting habits, to housing mobility—each contribute to the gap. If we are going to change student outcomes, Rothstein asserts, our current schools are not up to the task. Despite, his critique of school-based solutions cited above, however, the author also proposes a mostly school-based solution. He writes, “The fact that social-class differences are associated with, and probably cause, a big gap in academic performance does not mean that, in theory, excellent schools could not offset these differences” (p. 4). Rothstein’s social class argument simultaneously diminishes the role of schools in causing or fixing the gap and also minimizes the importance of race and in favor of class in the formation of the gap. Yet Rothstein locates the cause of the gap both outside and inside of schools. His school-based proposals sound a great deal like those of Darling-Hammond with additional concerns over attending to students’ health needs as well as to their academic needs. At the same time he advocates for better policies to support housing stability and improve childcare resources in poor communities. As with Darling-Hammond’s suggestions for school improvement, Rothstein’s recommendations are logical and the idea that they would benefit students seems evident at first glance. Rothstein’s framework, however, does not address the multiple ways in which race and racism have shaped and continue to shape the institution of education in America.

Lewis et al (2008) identify the same gap as Rothstein and Darling-Hammond although Lewis et al note that the achievement gap is particularly a problem of urban schooling for people of color. The authors propose a multifaceted lens on the achievement gap that incorporates and expands on both Rothstein and Darling-Hammond’s frameworks. The authors map out a broad set of explanations for the causes of the gap from a “critical race theory” perspective. This perspective asserts that racism and the “lingering effects of slavery” affect all aspects of American life and society. Using several component theories, the authors generate a hybrid interpretive lens called the “matrix of achievement paradigms (MAP),” based on three theoretical perspectives—social-structural inequality theory, deficit theory, and discontinuity theory. Social-structural theory views the achievement gap as a natural product of the inequality across American society and its institutions. The authors frame this theory as a set of struggles; “access versus control and quantity versus quality of educational resources” (p. 138). Social-structural theorists do see potential in school-based reform and at the same time they remain focused on larger societal change. Deficit theory, in contrast, locates the cause of the gap in individual and group characteristics like culture and attitude. Lewis et al maintain that deficit theory itself is one of the causes of the gap. They write, “This ideology of African American and other ethnic-minority students’ intellectual and cultural inferiority infects teachers, curriculum development, administrators, school policies, and ultimately, students’ academic progress” (p. 141). Thinking from a social-structural perspective, one can claim that deficit theory has become assimilated into the basic structures American society and the practices of its schools in a way that degrades the potential for students of color to succeed. Discontinuity theory posits that schools themselves and their practices are the cause of the achievement gap. Teachers have the most power over student learning but for many teachers lack “cultural competence and ability to teach culturally responsively [in a way that] will create a climate of academic success or failure for all students, particularly African American students in urban educational settings” (p. 142). As a result of the mismatch between the culture and needs of students and the practices of teachers and schools students do not receive effective instruction.

Rothstein and Darling-Hammond’s work can be described, in part, as social-structural theory. Although both authors attend to resource deficits that exist in schools and both suggest greater funding and support for schools and teachers, neither of them articulate changes in ways that schools interact with students; changes that would suggest consideration of discontinuity theory. Perhaps both authors assume that improved relevance and responsiveness in school practices would address student-school discontinuity. In any case, neither Rothstein nor Darling-Hammond directly takes on the implications of race in situating and then redressing the achievement gap. Lewis et al do not discount this work, rather they use it in conjunction with discontinuity theory and in opposition to deficit theory to support a set of changes at all levels of society—in the level of the nation and the school system, the level community and family, and level of the school itself. For each grouping, the authors recommend specific actions addressing concerns ranging from changing who controls schools to adopting more culturally relevant teaching practices.

All three of the previous authors are seemingly competing for intellectual space in which to frame the achievement gap and therefore frame national efforts at reform. Each of them seems to be vying for discursive space in opposition to other thinkers. The primary difference between these authors is the narrowness or breadth of their arguments. These authors represent powerful voices in the discourse around the achievement gap, but each offers an insufficient model for thinking about the gap in its true magnitude. This is a serious challenge for researchers and schools of education. Basic school equity is a central mission of educational research, yet this collection of thinking must be translated meaningfully into action and each author lacks coherence when viewed in light of the others. It is not enough to propose some narrow solutions designed to remedy specific manifestations of causes and effects of the gap. Knowing that there is a deficit between what schools actually do and what they must do has not closed the gap nor will it.

Darling-Hammond, Rothstein, and Lewis et al all suggest was to address the deficit in school performance, but Ladson-Billings (2006), offers a new framework for understanding why students of color continue to underachieve despite the focused attention of educational research. In her Presidential Address as the new president of the American Educational Research Association, “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools”, Ladson-Billings writes, “I want to argue that this all-out focus on the “Achievement Gap” moves us toward short-term solutions that are unlikely to address the long-term underlying problem” (p. 4). Moving from short-term to long-term solutions means moving from narrower to broader perspectives—in essence, synthesizing the perspectives of the authors discussed above. In some ways, the traditional understandings of the achievement gap reflected above are a kind of deficit theory unto themselves. In this case it is not the characteristics of the students, but of the schools that are lacking. Ladson-Billings, however, uses economics to provide a new perspective on achievement that supports the disparate perspectives outlined above while placing them in a broader context. Rather than isolating schools and blaming them as the problem, Ladson-Billings creates a framework in which schools are one of many financing mechanisms through which the American education debt can be paid down. Whereas deficits describe gaps between current spending and current resources, debts describe money that is owed and must be serviced in order for the burden of debt to be maintained and this is true for equity in schools as well.

Ladson-Billings (2006) examines the history of American education and identifies historical, economic, socio-political, and moral debts that are owed to people of color. The accumulated burden of this debt drags down the education system, forcing us to use strategies like those proposed above in servicing the debt rather than in transforming schooling. As each effort to close the gap fails, the accumulated failure increases to the debt and undermines the essential resource of institutional trust. Ladson-Billings writes, “That debt service manifests itself in the distrust and suspicion about what schools can and will do in communities serving the poor and children of color.” (p. 9). Ultimately, because we take the short-term approach of paying service on the debt while not investing in long-term debt reduction and elimination, we do not allow potential solutions the time or resources they might need to succeed. Primary examples of this, the author points out, are school desegregation and funding equity. These examples indicate that “although we may have recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Brown decision, we can point to little evidence that we really gave Brown a chance” (p. 9). As a nation, we do not conduct the scientific experimentation in education that is needed to truly change the system. Instead, we rush from change to change without ever understanding the true impact of any given reform.

Ladson-Billings points us towards an experimental marketplace with the resources and the freedom to try a wide variety of solutions. This gives an important role to the educational academe and to the many researchers that have illustrated components of the debt. She suggests that the educational research community must employ its expertise in framing and solving the problem:

So we must use our imaginations to construct a set of images that illustrate the debt. The images should remind us that the cumulative effect of poor education, poor housing, poor health care, and poor government services create a bifurcated society that leaves more than its children behind. The image should compel us to deploy our knowledge, skills, and expertise to alleviate the suffering of the least of these (p. 10).

Each of the authors discussed here presents an image that illustrates the debt. In Darling-Hammond we have an illustration of school needs that paint a picture of institutional failure and offer solutions based in resource equity. Rothstein’s image takes the broader scope of the impact of social class as its frame and demands resource allocation to meet a broad array of student needs as well as economic policy and political action that offer greater stability and increased support to poor families and people of color. Critical race theory, as expressed by Lewis et al, in contrast, illustrates how racism and power maintain the status quo and proposes a range of solutions that work to alter the structures of social oppression and school inequity. From each of these three images powerful cues can be drawn for developing creative and innovative approaches to paying down our education debt. In the wake of the historic election of Barack Obama, there is hope for a new discourse around race and equity in America. There are even some who foresee an era of great changes in social structure and in institutions. Such changes should be driven by leadership at the national level, but they must be implemented and employed, as Ladson-Billings articulates, at the local level—independently, creatively, and most importantly, with scientific precision and evaluation. It is only such monumental changes that provide hope for the gradual reduction of our national education debt to the point where we can learn to live within our means.

Works Cited

Darling-Hammond, L. (2007). Race, inequality, and educational accountability: the irony of ‘No

Child Left Behind’. Race, Ethnicity, and Education 10(3), 245-260.

Lason-Billings, G. (2006). From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding

Achievement in U.S. Schools [2006 Presidential Address]. Education Researcher, 35(7), 3-11.

Lewis, C.W., James, M., Hancock, S., Hill-Jackson, V. (2008). Framing African American

students’ success and failure in urban settings: A typology for change. Urban Education, 43(2), 127-153.

Rothstein, R. (2004). Wising Up on the Black-White Achievement Gap. Education Digest:

Essential Readings Condensed for Quick Review, 70(4), 27-36.
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