There Are Achievement Gaps — and There’s Nothing Wrong with Saying So
Most recently, I co-authored a piece for Teach For America’s Pass the Chalk (and Good.is)with my good friend Lauren Buller on the socioeconomic achievement gaps at the heart of the nation’s education crisis. In it, we defended the use of the phrase ‘the achievement gap’ against charges by fellow TFA alum and education professor Camika Royal that using the term is racist and offensive (and thus, should not be used at all). The article speaks for itself. But from where I sit, some of the arguments over what to call the achievement gap and how it should be defined -- part of a much-wider argument over whether to even address the educational issues facing many of our children — remain misguided.
One deeply misguided article by five TFA alumni and staff who defend Royal’s original argument, argues that dialogue about what to call the achievement gap was “silenced”. Basing their views on a theory on education policymaking first articulated by Lisa Delpit and others, Victor Diaz, Anasstassia Baichorova, Molly Bryson, Jamie Jenkins, and Tamara Urqhart contend that Royal is part of the “voices of the oppressed and marginalized” and that she was “silenced” because others “contradict, attack, or ignore” her arguments. [Editor's Note: This is a rather interesting argument given that Royal is higher education faculty, and thus, what some would call part of the elite and "powerful".]
In fact, the evidence suggests that the exact opposite happened. Royal’s article was much talked about, commented on, tweeted about, and discussed. Teach For America ran on its blog a five-piece series on the subject, in which all but one post (my own) looked unfavorably on the use of the term “achievement gap”. Royal subsequently was part of a conference call – the most listened to in TFA’s history – with Matthew Kramer, the organization’s president. What happened here is the opposite of a silenced dialogue.
Indeed, it was these writers themselves who seemed to want to silence dialogue. In their view, those who disagreed with Royal’s conclusions believed that “10 minutes of reading and reflection somehow trump Royal’s years of lived experience and doctoral training.” My view is that discussions are not card games in which one person wins by playing the doctorate or “lived experience” trump card. I am confident that these are five thoughtful people who care about education, but I would challenge them to think carefully and look at the evidence before throwing out allegations that others’ “responses exist along lines or race, class and gender, and along lines of power.” It is assertions such as these that can genuinely silence dialogue.
Another, more engaged response, appeared on “Pass the Chalk” as part of the achievement-gap series. In it, Shani Dowell makes an appealing argument: “I want my child’s successes and opportunities to be defined based on an absolute bar that will ensure every opportunity she wants and deserves – not based on how she performs relative to another ethnic or socioeconomic group.” Her point is that any gap should not be defined by race versus race, but using some sort of absolute standard. The problem, of course, is setting this bar. And even if we were to come up with such a standard, what happens if a certain under-performing group meets that bar but is still being vastly outperformed other groups? Isn’t this still very problematic? I would argue that it is.
Finally, one has to question Royal’s choice to follow-up on her original piece with one on Diane Ravitch’s eponymous blog. After Royal’s first piece, Ravitch pounced, writing: “This phrase (‘the achievement gap’) is used cynically by self-proclaimed ‘reformers’ who have no genuine interest in closing the opportunity gap or the wealth gap…They say that black children need a ‘different’ kind of education, an education where they are taught to obey, to conform, to listen in silence, and to do as they are told without question. They think that days on end of test prep is the right kind of education for black children, but not for their own.”
Anyone who regularly reads Ravitch’s blog know that this sort demeaning rhetoric is par for the course, though I found this specific rant particularly stunning and spiteful. Ravitch is saying, in essence, that some people who have dedicated their professional lives to improving public schools are knowing racists who don’t care about the children they’re purporting to help. I don’t see any other reading of this.
To my knowledge, Royal has not condemned or disowned Ravitch’s distortion (I assume it’s a distortion) of her writing. Needless to say, Royal has no obligation to track down and condemn every misguided commentary on the internet. But Royal’s choice to write on Ravitch’s blog without denouncing Ravitch’s malicious invective suggests that she has no problem with it.