Unlocking the Future

Rethinking The Racial Achievement Gap

How long do you try a thing before you admit it’s not working and switch up your plan? 

If you accept the premise that racial achievement gaps have been the driving force to improve academic performance in the U.S., the answer is at least 50 years; probably much longer. 

Ian Rowe, founder and CEO of Vertex Partnerships Academies in the Bronx and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says it’s time for a change. Instead of racial achievement gaps, he suggests we might make more progress if we focus on the gaps to 100-percent proficiency.

In the Opportunity America essay collection Unlocking the Future, Rowe rightly points out that nearly every education reform nonprofit for the past half century “has included earnest language around closing the achievement gap.” 

The “achievement gap” (racial is often implied) has been evoked by Republican and Democrat leaders alike. I’ve drawn on it in my 10-plus years of education advocacy because it’s compelling. Seeing the disparity between Black and white students in hard data — and seeing it in the countless stories of individual students and families — makes the issue hard to ignore.

And yet, despite all the focus on racial achievement gaps, they haven’t changed much in the several decades since we started keeping track. 

Rowe suggests the reason why we have “failed to improve student achievement is largely because we use an inadequate conceptual framework to understand it, namely racial achievement gaps.” 

He lists three important ways it falls flat:

  1. Obscures bigger challenges
    Focus on racial achievement gaps masks deeper challenges like our inability to teach reading to kids of all races. “Closing the Black-white achievement gap would guarantee only educational mediocrity for all students,” he says, since even white students aren’t doing that well on average either.

  2. Traps us in a racial box
    If we believe race is the underlying issue, it crowds out educators’ ability to think of solutions outside of race. “Educators bombarded by statistics on the racial achievement gap are, unsurprisingly, inclined to believe that underachievement is rooted in racism. A deeper look would shatter this notion that systematic racism is the sole or even primary cause of low proficiency rates among black and Hispanic Americans.” Some studies he references suggest home life and community context play a bigger role.

  3. Perpetuates racial stereotypes
    All this talk about racial achievement gaps may be doing more harm than good. Language that “paints America as a nation built on historical and present-day systems of racial oppression—“was enough to reduce Black respondents’ sense of control over their lives…. And this lack of control can easily extend far beyond the classroom.” Another study exposed some Black children to a TV news story about how Black students achieve less than white students and found it caused participants to underestimate the capabilities of Black students. Rather than boost minority outcomes, the focus on gaps reinforced notions of Black inferiority and white superiority. 

For people who care about Black achievement, these arguments should be compelling, particularly the first and third. 

But it’s not clear that Rowe’s suggested alternative, “gap to 100,” will produce better results. For one thing, the concept may have been tested already to some degree in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era. 

For a brief period after President George W. Bush signed that law in 2002, schools were required to get every student to proficiency. While it produced some useful data and other benefits, NCLB didn’t produce the academic achievement results everyone hoped for. One might argue that even NCLB operated with a racial achievement gap pulling in the undercurrent, but the point still stands, we don’t have much evidence that focusing on something other than the racial achievement gaps will be better. 

What’s more, Rowe essentially contradicts himself by quoting a study by James Coleman. Rowe summarizes the study to say that “family background — not schools, funding, religion or race — was the only characteristic with a consistent causal relationship to academic performance.”

He goes on to quote the 1966 study directly which says:

“That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on a child by their home, neighborhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities which which they confront adult life at the end of school.”

Literally everything in that paragraph points to race. There are, of course, other things that affect the child’s background, general social context, their home life, neighborhood and peer environment, but it’s unrealistic to assume race isn’t tied to each of those aspects in very real ways. 

Ultimately I think Rowe’s criticism of focusing primarily on racial achievement gaps is a reasonable one. I believe we may be ignoring potential solutions that don’t fit neatly into a racial framework. 

And even if there isn’t strong evidence that his suggested alternative might work, those of us who really care about the academic achievement of our children (Black, white or otherwise) should be open minded to what is and isn’t working. We should be willing to explore new approaches and try fresh frameworks to help students succeed.

Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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