The Language Gap

Our word choices indicate our perceptions and, sometimes, our misperceptions.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

In education, the language we use mattersour word choices indicate our perceptions and, sometimes, our misperceptions.

In recent years, some educators have argued that the phrase “the achievement gap” contributes to one such misperception. The debate came to a broader audience a couple of months ago in a pair of blog posts—one published by GOOD magazine and a follow-up on Diane Ravitch’s blog—by educator and historian Camika Royal (Baltimore ‘99). Dr. Royal criticizes the use of the phrase “achievement gap” as racist and inaccurate.  We’re glad she brought more attention to this conversation. But we also believe that the education community needs to be able to recognize and discuss the gap in outcomes—with an understanding that the gap results largely from underlying, systemic disparities in opportunity.

To critics of the “achievement gap” phrasing, a central problem is that it sets up a false dichotomy between largely white, higher-income students (good) and predominantly lower-income students of color (bad). Critics worry that the phrase suggests culpability on the part of lower-achieving students, when their outcomes are in fact shaped by circumstance and opportunity.

These are legitimate concerns. No one should imply that lower-income students must mimic their higher-income peers in all aspects. (We should say here that we are focusing on the achievement gap as a demarcation of income status rather than skin color, though we are well aware of the unfortunate correlations between race and income.)

On the other hand, we see value in language that describes the systematic disparities between schools in certain measures of student achievement. How can we express concern that far too many middle-school students in low-income communities don’t know their times tables? Or that half of low-income fourth graders are reading below the NAEP's "basic" level? Should it not bother us that the gap in test scores between low-income students and higher-income students is growing larger and larger?

Well-calibrated assessments make these trends visible to parents, educators, and policymakers. Raising test scores is not an end in itself—the goal is imparting the meaningful knowledge that well-designed assessments can measure. Not all tests meet this standard, but recent research has confirmed that students of teachers who produce higher test scores also have improved real-world outcomes: higher adult incomes, higher rates of college attendance, lower rates of teen pregnancy.

We agree, of course, that alleviating the “opportunity gap” would reduce disparities in test scores. Provisions ranging from subsidized healthcare to longer school days might increase any measure of achievement. But we need language to describe the outcomes of these efforts, so that we can determine which are most effective. If children from low-income backgrounds continue to perform, systematically, well below children born into wealthier families on measures of skill and knowledge attainment, there is more work to be done. The “achievement gap” allows us to measure this disparity, and is therefore worth calling out as such.

We recognize that the phrase “achievement gap” is imperfect but feel strongly that the education community should continue to use language to describe patterns in student outcomes. Defining and discussing these patterns will help ensure that we all remain focused on efforts that lead to long-term student success, rather than on intermediary steps that may or may not help students achieve their life goals.

Matt Barnum (Colorado ’10) taught middle-school language arts in Colorado Springs. He is currently studying at the University of Chicago Law School. He occasionally writes about education, and his past work has appeared in the Denver Post and the education-reform blog The Dropout Nation.

The article's co-author, Lauren Buller, formerly worked on national staff at Teach For America. She is an MBA student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and hopes to return to the education sector after graduation.


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