What are We Talking about When We Talk about “Closing the Achievement Gap”?

By Sue Books.

Published by The Learner Collection

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Article: Electronic $US5.00

Educational reformers across the political spectrum are expressing alarm about the black-white achievement gap in the U.S. – where, by the end of high school, African American and Latino students' math and reading skills are, on average, about on par with those of white 8th-graders (Education Trust, 2005). This gap reflects a national failure to realize the democratic ideal of equal educational opportunity. However, much of the talk about closing the racial achievement gap trivializes the problem by ignoring the link between test scores and broader social failings. Instead, the gap is construed as a school-based technical challenge, as a problem beyond the reach of schools (because rooted in the alleged values of families and communities), or as an odd combination of both. Scholars with very different assumptions about its causes are “for” closing the achievement gap. Not surprisingly, their commentaries point to a panoply of solutions -- from school choice, to eradication of child poverty, to changing public policies that sustain segregation. Because it means many different things to many different people, talk about closing the achievement gap actually means very little -- and, arguably, has been so broadly embraced in part for this reason. Somewhat like declaring a war on terror with no agreement about what constitutes terrorism and little understanding of its root causes, tackling the achievement gap does not necessarily require either sophisticated analysis or significant social change. This paper will explore the political malleability of the discourse of the achievement gap, based on a study of existing commentaries, and will call for more of the kind of substantive analysis provided by Grissmer et al. (1998) and Ladson-Billings (2006), among others.

Keywords: Achievement Gap, Discourse, Racism, Educational Reform, Educational Opportunity

The International Journal of Learning, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp.11-18. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 513.542KB).

Dr. Sue Books

Professor, Department of Secondary Education, State University of New York - New Paltz, New Paltz, New York, USA

I have been studying and teaching about issues of school funding, poverty, and educational opportunity in the U.S. for 15 years. I wrote the book Poverty and Schooling in the U.S.: Contexts and Consequences (Erlbaum, 2004); edited Invisible Children in the Society and its Schools (Erlbaum, 1998/2003/2006), now in its third edition; and was guest editor of a special issue of the journal Educational Studies, “Jonathan Kozol’s ‘Savage Inequalities’: a 15-year Retrospective” (August 2006). I am a professor and former chair in the Department of Secondary Education at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and am looking forward to spending two quarters at the University of Pretoria as a visiting scholar. My present research is a comparison of “pro-poor” school funding policies in the U.S. and South Africa. I am also developing a course in comparative educational philosophy, and am working with Project Outreach, a National Writing Project initiative focused on support for teachers in high-poverty schools.


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