Trying to Talk About the Achievement Gap? Try This.

Feb 12, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Politics and education are two of my favorite subjects. It’s neat when I have an opportunity to combine them. I recently listened to a speech by Gloria Ladson-Billings that did just that. I recommend you read or listen to it to catch all the specifics, but the premise is that, in many ways, our national debt and our national deficit can be compared to the problems we have in schools, specifically with achievement gaps. I promise not to get too bogged down by politics, but it’s a comparison worth making if you suspect that we’re not approaching the achievement gap with the right mindset. Let’s sort out the terms, for starters.


Deficits, in the economic sense, only deal with the current year’s budget, and they happen when the government spends more money in a year than it takes in. The speech compares that to the way we approach achievement gaps in school, but it doesn’t have anything to do with money: the “deficit” here is the gap in academic performance that we see between different groups of students. Naturally, we want to see all students performing at a high level, so this usually leads those of us in education to pursue different in-school strategies to help gap students catch up. For example, my school invests a lot of time in getting kids in small-group learning sessions and into extended school-service programs. To be honest, they can be pretty effective for helping out individual students who have underperformed on state tests. However, even if they do manage to close the gap for those few kids who need the extra push, [pullquote position="right"]they’re not going to fix schools that are permeated with inequalities.[/pullquote] They’re not going to eradicate achievement gaps. They’re not going to account for the fact that students who are White and come from middle-class families are systemically privileged and thus more likely to be successful in school. Short-term “fixes” like that are what Ladson-Billings might describe as “deficit thinking.”


Contrast that with “debt” thinking. When it comes to young students of color and students from poor communities, the speech points out that the injustices they face don’t start fresh each year—they’ve been mounting over time, accumulating interest, like our national debt. The reason those students tend to score lower than others isn’t simply that they lack access to after-school programs or small-group learning, even if those things are all well and good in their own right. “Debt thinking” recognizes that the achievement gap is far more complex and systemic. Take, for example, the major shortage of Black and Brown teachers in K-12 schools, or the failure of teacher-prep programs to produce culturally competent and empowering teachers who are ready to work in diverse schools. These issues aren’t ones that show up in the state test results each fall, but they’ve been compounding interest for decades and affecting our students nonetheless. The truth is that we aren’t going to be able to “balance the budget” through these short-term fixes alone—if we want to “pay down the debt” and really close the achievement gap, we need to recognize that.

We Can’t Pay Off Our Debt With A Deficit Mindset Alone

A recent national study showed a pretty big disparity between White students and African-American and Hispanic students in both reading and math proficiency. Those results have amped up a lot of national conversations about what we can do to “close the gap” and “bridge the divide,” but after thinking about the deficit/debt comparison, I’m not sure if that’s the right language to use. We would obviously like to see all groups performing at a high level on standardized tests, but I think the phrase “closing the gap” is short-term, deficit-thinking because it just reinforces the privileges that White, middle-class students have without doing anything to address how those disparities were created in the first place. Our conversations about the achievement gap should not be limited to test scores alone; like Ladson-Billings points out, there are other dimensions of the gap as well. Historically, we’ve seen certain groups of people excluded from having access to education. Financially, we’ve seen majority-White districts receive more funding than schools mostly populated by students of color. In other words, it’s more than just a gap in “achievement,” even though academic performance is an important factor. Without noticing these systemic, external factors, we run the risk of deficit-thinking that ultimately isn’t going to be successful in addressing the problem. This is more or less what Ladson-Billings is laying out in her speech, and I think there’s value in her ideas: We need to approach the achievement gap with a debt-mindset, rather than a deficit-mindset. When we recognize that the achievement gap we constantly hear about is really more of an “opportunity gap”—that is, it’s the culmination of many systemic inequities and missed opportunities over the years—we can really get to the heart of the issue. Since the achievement gap is not the result of a single event or “budget” alone, we can only truly begin to make progress by changing our mindset and thinking of it like an educational debt.

Garris Stroud

Garris Stroud is an award-winning educator and writer from Greenville, Kentucky whose advocacy and scholarship have been recognized by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Education Post, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and The Lexington Herald-Leader. He served as a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow from 2017-2019 and became chair of the organization’s editorial board in 2018. Stroud received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Murray State University and is currently a doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of the Cumberlands, located in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian region. Read more about his work on the Kentucky School Talk and Rural Ed Voices blogs.

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