When Words Get in the Way

Let’s not waste valuable time debating words at the cost of progress.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This is the second post in a Pass the Chalk series on the term "achievement gap."

You don’t know what you don’t know.  This acknowledgement fueled my initial response to an article by Camika Royal, someone I know and respect, as I made the connection to David Foster Wallace’s insight that “we are all like a fish that doesn't know it's in water; we're so surrounded by it, that it’s impossible to see.” On March 3, 2004, as a first year Teach For America corps member, I led my 8th grade students in reading an article from the Chicago Sun-Times, “50 years after Brown, Blacks still lag in education.” Reading Phillip Jackson’s post, we learned about the achievement gap. I’d been introduced to this terminology in college and introduced it to my students as such.


Four young teenage students folding a large American flag in front of their school.


Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D., via WikiCommons
During that lesson, we learned…

  • An academic achievement gap in schools inevitably results in an achievement gap in society, and that this academic achievement gap gives way to an employability gap, an earnings gap, a health care gap, a life expectancy gap, a housing gap, an incarceration gap, a marriageability gap, a wealth gap and other quality-of-life gaps. The visual I supplied helped us infer that this gap was actually a racial gap.
  • While many individuals and institutions have a powerful role to play in the solution, the Black community must supply the leadership, energy and resolve to fix this problem, while the government must provide the financial resources and the legislative will.
  • This issue of educating Black children, and all children, is the next civil rights movement. 
  • The movement to educate Black children must become a 24-hour a day, 365-day a year national priority. The failure of Black children to be educated in American schools is not a problem caused by Black children. It is caused by adults of all races. And it will take all Americans to fix this problem.

Today, I’m still that fish that doesn’t know it’s in water. I never once questioned my using the term achievement gap until Camika taught me a valuable lesson, quoting Toni Morrison, that “definitions belong to the definers-not the defined.” That’s why I reasoned Camika must especially be calling me out. How dare an educated Black man, who shared the same racial identity as his students, teach them society’s biased definition of excellence? Lesson learned. What I do know is that changing this conversation must not come at the expense of failing to identify a solution to the greatest problem of our time. I’m not talking about any achievement gap; I’m talking about integration.

During a subsequent lesson, I used a personal story to define what integration meant to me. I told my students about my mother, and how she epitomizes the disposition one must have to fully embrace integration. This disposition includes characteristics of strength, forgiveness, and wisdom. I shared how my mother, who lived during the civil rights movement, shed tears on September 11, 2001, as she watched Peter Jennings deliver an around the clock narrative of the tragedy that struck our nation. This is one of the only times I have seen my mother cry. She did so, she explained, because this was the first time in decades that she saw our country unified, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, or many of the terms that divide us as a people.  

In many ways, we are all the same, but, much like words, we let color get in the way. The race problem in America is rooted in over 400 years of history that won’t be erased. Strength and unity grow in moments of vulnerability and pain. What greater pain are we facing today than the realization that our schools work for many, but not for most of the children in the communities where Teach For America corps members work? Let’s not waste valuable time debating words at the cost of progress.


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