Part I: Achievement Gap, Or Opportunity Gap? What's Stopping Student Success

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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Series: Closing the Achievement Gap | Take Our Survey

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Seeking solutions to a persistent problem in American education. It’s Part 1 of our special series "The 50 Year Fight: Solutions For Closing The Achievement Gap."

Bilingual teacher Maritza Roman, left, meets with parent Andrea Rosa, right, for a parent-teacher conference for Rosa's daughter Angelica Vilorio, center, at Windham Center School in Windham, Conn. (Jessica Hill/AP)
Bilingual teacher Maritza Roman, left, meets with parent Andrea Rosa, right, for a parent-teacher conference for Rosa's daughter Angelica Vilorio, center, at Windham Center School in Windham, Conn. (Jessica Hill/AP)


Prudence Carter, sociologist who has spent her career researching the factors that shape and reduce economic, social and cultural inequalities. Dean and professor at the Graduate School of Education University of California, Berkeley. Author of "Keepin’ It Real: School Success beyond Black and White" and co-editor of "Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance." (@prudencelcarter)

Ibram X. Kendi, historian focused on race in the United States. Executive director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. Author of "Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America" and "How to Be an Antiracist." (@DrIbram)

Results From The '50-Year Fight' Survey

Interview Highlights

On how the "achievement gap" has been defined historically

Prudence Carter: "Conventionally, when we talk about the achievement gap, we're talking about test score differences — significant test score differences — by race, by class, by gender. Or, we're talking about differences in college-going rates, high school graduation rates, high school dropout rates. But I think the popular parlance is around test score differences. And we've done so much research over the last 30 or so years on why it is that there are significant differences by race and ethnicity on test scores — which is perceived as significant predictors of how well, how competent, how intelligent a student is — and whether or not they are worthy or meritorious of going to select colleges and universities."

On preferring the term "opportunity gap" to "achievement gap" — and what that says about the underlying problem

Ibram X. Kendi: "I think, fundamentally, when people commonly think of the achievement gap — and I'm saying when people, I'm talking not necessarily about scholars, but everyday people … the types of people who are going to support policies, or not — they typically think of this idea that black and Latinx and native children are achieving at a lower level than white and Asian children. And they're achieving at a lower level because there's something wrong with them. Because there's something they're not as individuals doing — there's something that parents were not doing there, [that] teachers are not doing. And so that's why you've had people support accountability measures for students and teachers, but not necessarily be willing to think about and look at these larger structural factors that are actually impacting what's happening in the classroom. … And, so, I think that's why, for me, I actually do prefer the term opportunity gap, because that changes what the problem is and thereby what the solution is."

"You've had people support accountability measures for students and teachers, but not necessarily be willing to think about and look at these larger structural factors that are actually impacting what's happening in the classroom."

Ibram X. Kendi

On factors that influence the achievement gap

Carter: "We know a lot about the opportunity gaps that drive the achievement gaps, and I'm going to start and go ahead and introduce that. We know that there are myriad contextual conditions that actually shape, influence, affect [the opportunity gap]. Researchers, like myself, have to be very careful about causality, but we know that there are a number of factors that are associated with the academic disparities, or the so-called achievement gaps, and some of those we pay attention to. Many of them we don't pay attention to, because they require quite a bit of political will to move the needle farther, because of the resources that are needed to drive those changes. So, in the last several decades, what we do know is that there are kind of macro-level changes that need to be done, like the big societal, economic policies. Because those policies shape the conditions that kids grow up in in their communities, their neighborhoods and families. Then there are kind of meso-level [populations that fall between micro and macro levels], like what's going on around in your immediate metropolitan area, your neighborhood and such, that shape the kind of material conditions that can affect the well-being of children. And then there's what's going on in your school. So, we know also that what happens in neighborhoods, in terms of the resources in the United States, it's the tax assessments, tax dollars that actually shape the kind of resource — a revenue context — that schools will receive locally.

"And if you live in a neighborhood where there is high rental and low homeownership, which are predominantly in low-income and poor communities, you're not going to have as great a resource context or a resource base as if you live in a neighborhood like the one I'm in, here in Berkeley, where the homes — the median cost of homes is, what, at a million dollars and more. So, those are the radical differences that we also know, that will just shape the immediate context of what revenue can go into a school. And then you come down to the micro-level of what's happening, inside of the classroom, with the greatest input, which is the quality of the teaching, the teachers in the classroom, the actual teaching aids. I mean, you can go into some schools in this country and the students don't even --as you move up through the grades — they don't have the fabulous labs for science or the digital technology. The kind of curriculum — is it a high-quality, rich, engaging curriculum that is going to motivate and compel students? So, you have to think about this at multiple dimensions, because it's a constellation of factors that really shape the kind of overall educational context that most children are going to have. And what we know in the United States is that it is disproportionate, in terms of the resource context, by race, by ethnicity and class. Which is one of the reasons why we see these enduring achievement disparities or gaps."

"It is disproportionate, in terms of the resource context, by race, by ethnicity and class. Which is one of the reasons why we see these enduring achievement disparities or gaps."

Prudence Carter

On curriculum inequality in schools

Carter: "We do have various forms of inequality embedded even in the curriculum and the ethos of the classroom. We do have to think about disengagement and engagement for our kids, and, historically in most public schools — in many public schools — black and brown youth have not even gotten their own history. I mean, I certainly know that many of us — I didn't get a lot of my history until I went to college or to a selective college. It's just the way that we've built our curricula around European ideas and history and culture and politics. And, so, certainly in interviews with kids over the years that I've done, I've had kids ask me, ‘Well what about me? I don't even see myself in what I'm learning in terms of history, economics, social science, English for that matter.’ So, I think there is something there, and that's why we have a number of people espousing the value of culturally responsive education, of critical thinking, of being more expansive in what we mean by education."

On misconceptions about the achievement gap

IXK: "When people imagine the achievement gap, and they imagine it similarly based on the test-scoring gap, and then they imagine that the reason why black and Latinx kids are scoring lower is because there's something wrong with them — [the idea that] they don't value education, they're not hard workers — that concept, I would argue, is a racist idea. [It’s] suggesting these long-standing notions that black children and black people don't value education, that black people are intellectually inferior, and the test scores demonstrate this intellectual inferiority — empirically — and it can't be denied. Without question, you know, in that sense, the achievement gap is furthering racist ideas, while obviously the opportunity gap doesn't necessarily do that."

From The Reading List

Chalkbeat: "50 years ago, one report introduced Americans to the black-white achievement gap. Here’s what we’ve learned since." — "This summer marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most influential education research reports ever released.

"The report — colloquially known as the Coleman report after its lead author James S. Coleman — unveiled two major surprises. First, it revealed an enormous achievement gap between America’s black and white students. Second, it suggested that the gap arose largely from differences among families.

"Over the last 50 years, the Coleman report has become its own institution. It has been scrutinized, corroborated, covered up, used to make social policy, and, ultimately, dramatically improved upon.

"Here, we tell the story of the Coleman report and the important, fascinating, and still evolving school of research it has spawned. It is a story about how scholars have tried to unravel the tangled relationships between race, income, school, and children’s academic and life outcomes. And it is about the surprising conclusions they’ve reached.

"In fact, differences in school funding do not explain students’ different outcomes. Schools and teachers explain less of the variation in student achievement than many think. And yet schools, on average, appear to help reduce inequality, at least among young children.

"Here is a guide to the most important things we now know about the sources of America’s racial achievement gap — and the urgent questions that remain."

Boston Globe: "No progress in the achievement gap in 50 years, new study says" — "Despite decades of public education reform efforts, the national achievement gap between low-and high-income students has been stagnant for nearly a half century, according to research at Harvard and Stanford universities set to be published Monday in a new study.

"The achievement gap is as big today as it was for children born in 1954, with disadvantaged students three to four years behind their more affluent peers, said researchers Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University and Paul E. Peterson, director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.

"The findings counter other research showing a widening achievement gap paralleling rising income inequality."

Penn Graduate School of Education: "Rethinking the Achievement Gap" — "Back in the 1960s, the noted sociologist Christopher Jencks called for income tax redistribution to address the issue of racial inequality. Today, he looks to education: 'Reducing the test score gap is probably both necessary and sufficient for substantially reducing racial inequalities in education attainment and earnings.'

"Jencks is not alone in this assessment. In the last 40 years, more has been written about the achievement gap than just about any other topic in education. But what exactly is the achievement gap? How important is it? What has been done, and what can be done, to address it?

"The achievement gap is the persistent disparity in academic achievement between minority and disadvantaged students and their white counterparts. To begin my discussion of the issue, I feel I must in some way account for the nature-nurture tension that sometimes underpins conversations about the gap: suffice it to say that I weigh in with Richard Nisbitt, who stated that '[t]he most relevant studies provide no evidence of the genetic superiority of either race but strong evidence for substantial environmental contributions to the IQ gap between blacks and whites.'

"In my view, it is not innate ability but rather the opportunity to learn—an artifact of environment—that underlies the achievement gap."

Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis: "Racial and Ethnic Achievement Gaps" — "Racial and ethnic inequality in education has a long and persistent history in the United States. Beginning in 1954, however, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, some progress has been made in improving racial educational disparities. But that progress has been slow, uneven, and incomplete.

"One key set of measures of racial educational equality are racial achievement gaps—differences in the average standardized test scores of white and black or white and Hispanic students. Achievement gaps are one way of monitoring the equality of educational outcomes.

"The series of figures below describe recent trends and patterns in racial achievement gaps."

Grace Tatter produced this hour for broadcast.

Series: Closing the Achievement Gap | Take Our Survey

This article was originally published on September 09, 2019.

This program aired on September 9, 2019.



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