The Achievement Gap: Let's Stop Pretending We Know What This Means

It seems like anywhere and everywhere you go, everyone is talking about our
nation's schools; I find it both exciting and peculiar. As one who formerly taught in
urban high schools, and who currently researches and teaches courses in the field of
education at the university level, I am excited that quite frequently people wish to
strike up informal discussions or debates with me around issues of public education.
However, maybe 10 or so years ago, few outside of the educational circles were
talking this much about our schools. Now, it seems, we're all experts.

To say that the condition of public education is on the minds of most Americans
would be a drastic understatement. The current status of United States public
education has officially taken its place alongside of gay marriage, domestic and
foreign economic policies, health care reform, and the federal budget, as an
official hot topic. We dialogue, debate and dispute education among our peers
and colleagues with a fervor and with the assuming expertise of a lobbyist or the
secretary of education himself.

And we draw rationale for our opinions on education from our own interests and
understandings, which are unique to our own, lived experiences. In sum, most
United States' inhabitants think they get education. To be fair, at the very least,
most have been to school at one point or another in their lives. Nearly 87% of us
have at least a high school diploma, and regardless of whether or not we consider
ourselves experts on the intricacies of educational policy or practice, we all have
at minimum a self-referentially based opinion on education because of our own
classroom experience. But our own classroom experience coupled with a superficial
understanding of education as a "hot topic" is not enough.

In recent years, besides the stunningly widespread appeal of the movie Waiting
for Superman
, public education has seemingly become somewhat of a media
darling. Nightly we are walloped with stories of teachers behaving inappropriately,

students fighting, corrupted and confused school and district leaders mishandling
funds, and urban educators struggling to keep doors open in schools that educate
students who have below-basic reading and math levels. We have even watched
the informative, yet alarming CNN specials and have been shocked and awed by
the tales from the front lines (note the warfare language here) of our schools. On
the flip side of the coin, we also hear of heroic school principals who turn around
failing ghettos schools. We hear of Wonder Woman-esque district leaders who steer
through the bureaucratic maze of unions to trample upon the heads of lazy and
ineffective classroom teachers. We read about the damaging consequences school
closures have on the lives of students and teachers alike. We see stories of dynamic
teachers who motivate at-risk, urban, Black and Latino students to beat the odds.
The consequence of our increased exposure to these images and sound bites is that
we all have become fluent in the newest language in educational discourse -- the
language of reform.

We have all heard and read the language of reform -- school choice debates center
on charter schools, vouchers, and magnet schools. Early childhood advocates grapple
with funding and implementing programs like Head Start, while K-12 educators
deliberate over issues like standardized assessments, high stakes accountability
measures, drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, gang-related violence, and college access.
And while these seemingly diverging issues impact various sectors of schoolchildren
in different contexts, they are tied to one resounding educational reform dilemma,
epitomized in the term, the achievement gap.

Everyone has heard of the achievement gap, yet few understand the wide extent of
achievement measures that this term actually encompasses. The achievement gap
refers to the disparity in various school-related outcomes that exists between White
children and their non-White counterparts. Evidence of the gap is found not only in
discrepancies within measures on standardized assessments, but also in varied high
school graduation rates, access to early childhood education, college enrollment and
completion, and dozens of other measurable outcomes tied to school performance.

To fully understand the achievement gap, it is important to consider the numerous
factors that contribute to its existence. Because so many factors influence the
achievement gap, numerous and all-encompassing interventions are needed in
order to even partially ameliorate it. In our 160-character or less, vivid-image and
drama-laden media culture, many of us have been duped into thinking that we have
grasp of the achievement gap.

Overwhelmed with the cure-all political and economically driven climate that
dominates current educational discourse, we buy in to quick-fix policies because
media pummels us with the outliers. If we only get the great and the terrible that
American education offers with little consideration of the social, political, economic,

and historical contexts that all work to influence the culture of one individual
school, we will continue to cast unproductive blame at struggling schools and ask
assumption laden questions like, if one school is doing something great, then why
can't all schools?

While media has shined an important light onto the workings of schools, it is
important to consider both the risks and the benefits associated with such over-exposure. Sure we all have become more fluent in the discourse language of reform,
but many of us are only debating the surface issues that correlate to deeply situated
causes. Media has catalyzed increased attention to re-think public education. It
has introduced us to the language and acquainted us with images that cause deep
intellectual and sometimes emotional responses. But, media has given us just the
talking points that have left discussions on educational reform contextually and
historically devoid of the salient underlying issues.

Thus, my hope with this Faith for Change series on the achievement gap will be
to remind some, and introduce to others the historical antecedents that have led
us to where we are now in educational reform. Centering on understanding the
achievement gap itself, my goal is to begin to reshape readers' understandings to
create a more comprehensive and useful grasp of this popular term.

Roderick L. Carey is an educational researcher, writer, and teacher educator.
Currently, he is a Ph.D candidate in the department of Teaching, Learning, Policy and
Leadership at University of Maryland College Park, where he specializes in Minority
and Urban Education.