Our group this week determined that the term "Achievement Gap" is insufficient in that it does not highlight gaps in opportunities. Further, we discussed how, in fact, the most meaningful gap is what we called the "Potential Gap." That is, what are the gaps we experience between what kiddos are capable of and how they are actually performing? Granted, it is unlikely that any human being has ever fully reached their potential; and yet, some kiddos have more opportunities in school to get closer to their potential apices than others.
The notion of the "Achievement Gap" lacks rigor in the sense that it ostensibly quantifies what we are told to think of as performance and ability differences amongst America's students based on an unchallenged normative measure of achievement. Even more problematic, the notion of the "Achievement Gap" assumes equality. It assumes that all students start in similar places and have access to similar opportunities -- in and out of school. As we know well, that isn't the case.
Noah Geisel, 2013 ACTFL National Teacher of the Year, tweeted out recently that "Some people have better worst-case access than others." Robert Putnam refers to this as "social air bags, the advantages provided by affluence and access that exacerbate inequities. It would be impossible to honestly and credibly measure an "Achievement Gap" without a deliberate consideration of how "worst-case" access and social air bags enhance students' capacity for school success. Anything else is more accurately a study of privilege and not anything that could be considered a metric of individual ability.
Our group, in referring to our primary interest of concern as a "Potential Gap" brings to bear what I believe is an essential task in any equity agenda. Before we can speak with any reliable conviction about how well our kiddos are performing or what they need to perform better, we must be sure to give them baseline learning experiences that are rich, rigorous, and engaging EVERY single day. It's why my emphasis with teachers is always on the quality of planning in the design of learning experiences... because while one may be aware of the risk factors any one or group of students face, if a well-considered, carefully-aligned lesson isn't offered, one has no way of knowing specifically what students need in order to reach higher performance levels.
I saw this great tweet just yesterday when following the #whatisschool Twitter chat. While I love what this teacher is doing with these children, it struck a chord with me because I want to see more of this kind of innovative pedagogical thinking in high-impact schools with students who are perceived as being on the wrong end of the "Achievement Gap." In that short video, I see (and feel) an investment from the students in the learning of Spanish that must have been profoundly facilitated by a teacher unwilling to allow any scripted pathway to learning to interfere with his interpretation and application of pedagogy that he believes will allow his students to take greater ownership of their learning. This is just good teaching! And I'm comfortable calling it good teaching because it feels apparent to me that these students have a more meaningful opportunity to fulfill their own personal potential in this learning experience than in more traditional methods that I have too often seen (over-)emphasized in schools where their students are implicitly perceived as less capable and less invested.@EducatorsRoom Spanish teacher abandon traditional textbook and build lessons based on student needs & assessment. pic.twitter.com/LUnSqdFQzM— Dee Priester (@dpriester) May 6, 2016
To be clear, I am not ignoring the impact of socio-economic structures beyond the classroom. We know of the consistent and strong correlation between social segregation and poverty and school performance. We must make the commitment to interrupt societal inequities that contribute powerfully to the predictability of performance patterns in schools. In the meantime, teachers are challenged to do all they can for their students today! Teachers don't have the luxury of waiting for society to commit and then do the work of opportunity reform (even though teachers unduly receive so much of the blame for the problems social inequities incur on children). The teachers I most appreciate and respect are committed daily to figuring out what their students need in order to reach their full potential.
The language of "Opportunity Gap" and "Potential Gap" should evoke a greater sense of awareness that teachers and the designs they create for powerful learning experiences are a baseline, protective factor for students. These protective factors -- innovative, rich, and rigorous learning experiences with a focus on student engagement -- are absolutely essential as a starting point for us to develop a clearer sense of how well our students are performing relative to their potential and further, what they need in order to close the gap between how they perform today and what their highest possible performance looks like.
Until and unless we make this critical pivot in our thinking, we will fail to recognize the opportunities we have to create more meaningful gap-closing experiences for our students, and our debt to under-served communities will remain unfulfilled. Anything short of a profound re-conceptualization of the "Achievement Gap" will leave unchallenged the notion that, in effect, our most vulnerable students should be more like the children of privilege and affluence in order for them to achieve in ways that are most valued in school. That it not the mindset needed to redress the unacceptable patterns we experience now.