Why We Should Talk About Opportunity Gaps Instead of Achievement Gaps

Last week, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) devoted its newsletter to exploring the meaning of the words we use to describe and compare educational attainment. NEPC reports that according to a web search, “use of the phrase ‘achievement gap’ has been trending downward in the past decade and a half.  However, searches of ‘opportunity gap’ have shown only a slight uptick.” NEPC’s newsletter wonders: “Will 2020 be the year of acknowledging opportunity gaps?”

What is the difference between “achievement gap” and “opportunity gap?” Does it matter what words we use to describe educational inequality?

Researchers at the National Education Policy Center believe it matters because the the words we use expose how we think, and reflexively the words we use also shape how we think: “When educators, policymakers, and parents emphasize the ‘achievement gap,’ they’re focusing on results like disparate dropout rates and test scores, without specifying the causes. They are, often unintentionally, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the children themselves. Listeners adopt the toxic presumption that root causes lie with the children and their families. In truth, outcome gaps are driven by input gaps—opportunity gaps—that are linked to our societal neglect of poverty, concentrated poverty, and racism.”

NEPC’s newsletter emphasizes how the focus on achievement gaps has affected the thinking of teachers and why this needs to change: “(P)lacing blame on children and families is pervasive. A 2019 EDWeek survey of more than 1,300 teachers found that more than 60 percent of educators say that student motivation has a major influence on differences in Black and White educational outcomes… The 2019 EdWeek survey found that teachers who use the term ‘opportunity gap’ instead of ‘achievement gap’ to describe differences in average educational outcomes of Whites versus Hispanics or Blacks appear to think differently about the root causes of disparate outcomes.  For instance, 43 percent of teachers who use the term ‘opportunity gap’ say that, when it comes to differences in the educational outcomes of Black and White students, society bears more responsibility than individuals or the community.”

Certainly  teachers’ unconscious assumptions about their students are an important subject for NEPC’s newsletter.  But moving toward a broader understanding of the term “opportunity gap” in the broader society outside of school matters just as much. Doesn’t the term “achievement gap” embody the very meaning of the last quarter century of test-and-punish public school accountability?

The whole thrust of this movement has been drilling down, not expanding opportunity. The sanctions-based No Child Left Behind Act and later programs like Race to the Top rewarded schools that showed they could quickly close achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests.  Schools, and later even individual teachers, were judged by the test scores they produced, not the experience they provided for their students during the school day. Very real punishments for schools were imposed by Congress and state legislatures when scores failed to rise on time.  Federally imposed turnaround schemes included reconstituting the school by firing the principal and some of the teachers, closing the school, or turning the school over to a charter management organization. In the same spirit, states began assigning letter grades to schools and school districts, taking over the “D” and “F” school districts,  closing so-called “failing” schools, and expanding privatization through charters and vouchers.

The Harvard expert on the construction and use of standardized tests, Daniel Koretz explains that students in schools serving concentrations of very poor children whose academic needs are the greatest have been the most likely to find their teachers and schools under pressure to raise standardized test scores at any cost and therefore to narrow the curriculum to tested subjects and engage in drilling and test prep instead of more enriched instruction:

“(A) study that examined reading scores across a number of states found that (score) inflation was much more common among students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches than among other students… (I)t is not just about the poverty of individual students that predicts the amount of (score) inflation, but also the concentration of poor students in a school… Lower performing schools often face severe barriers to improvement—for example, fewer resources, less experienced teaching staff, high rates of teacher turnover, higher rates of student transcience, fewer high-performing students to serve as models, fewer parents who are able to provide supplementary supports, and less pressure for academic achievement from parents among other things.  Faced with these obstacles, teachers will have a stronger incentive to look for shortcuts for raising scores. Ironically, one of the elements of school reform intended to help low-achieving students appears to have backfired, making these incentives worse. The key is that the performance targets are uniform and are coupled with real sanctions and rewards. When these targets require faster gains than teachers can produce by legitimate means, teachers have a strong incentive to search for whatever methods might raise scores quickly.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 68-69)

We now know that accountability-based school reform—epitomized by No Child Left Behind, which mandated annual standardized tests and then judged schools by students’ scores—didn’t accomplish its stated goal of closing gaps in student achievement as measured by standardized tests.  Academic research continues to demonstrate that the test-and-punish regime did not address the causes of gaps in test scores.  In a massive, new, data-based study, Is Separate Still Unequal, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon explains that we must reconsider our analysis and think about opportunity gaps: “By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… Differences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

The terms “achievement gap” and “opportunity gap” are central to two very different stories with different plots and different protagonists.  In the achievement gap story, the protagonist is the individual—the child who needs to be more motivated—the parent who needs to try harder and engage more with school—the schoolteacher who isn’t working hard enough to make students’ scores rise. Our societal response has been to blame these individuals and punish them to make them try harder.  In the opportunity gap story, the protagonist is society itself, which has failed to consider and invest in ameliorating racial and economic inequality. The widespread promotion of the achievement gap narrative has made it hard for us even to consider the public responsibility required and the possibilities potentially to be realized if we were to embrace the other story.

It is important for NEPC to remind teachers to reconsider the assumptions embedded in the term “achievement gap,” but at the same time we need to give schoolteachers themselves credit for demanding that our society address glaring opportunity gaps in their schools. For two years now,  public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have been showing us that, too often, children coping with poverty at home find themselves in classes of 40 students and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.  Striking teachers have shown us how far our society has fallen below a standard anyone could possibly consider equitable.

For a decade now, the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Campaign has used the term “opportunity gaps” to describe the needs of our society’s poorest children.  In December, the Chronicle of Philanthropy (paywalled) published a profound reflection by John Jackson, the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation about our society’s responsibility to address the huge opportunity gaps posed for America’s children today. His commentary was reprinted by the Schott Foundation: “American public schools, as our nation’s only mandatory network of institutions for children and families, are a lifeline to opportunity in every urban, suburban, and rural community. That’s why we believe the public education system is also the lifeline for advancing our democracy. For young people, our public schools are where they often experience their first engagement with society or initial feelings of being pushed out. It’s also where they are first protected or over-policed, learn about justice or experience injustice. And it’s where parents and everyone else in the community have the best opportunity to advance efforts to create a more just society, whether that is by putting pressure on local school boards or dealing with local control of state funding. Our educators can’t help young people achieve their learning goals without adequate resources, and that financial support is key to tackling the disparities that today mean our schools offer unequal education depending on a student’s race, gender, disability or socioeconomic status… To what degree are (political) candidates’ policies and proposals seeking real change—or simply attempting to once again justify the denial of rights and opportunities to those long marginalized by our American system and society?”

3 thoughts on “Why We Should Talk About Opportunity Gaps Instead of Achievement Gaps

  1. I resonated with your use of the concept of stories to highlight the differences between achievement and opportunity gaps. To me we are living in a time of changing stories. The story of the American Dream that many of internalized as we grew up has died for too many citizens. Charles Eisenstein suggests that we are living “in between stories” with the possibility of writing a new one. My hope is that we resist the temptation to resurrect the old story (which never worked for far too many people) and devote ourselves the creation of a new and better one… one which recognizes the importance of expanding opportunities.

  2. Pingback: Take Moment… | Rethinking Learning...

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