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?”

Schott Foundation’s New “Loving Cities Index” Rejects Decades-Long, Test-and-Punish School Policy

Here is Dr. John Jackson, President & CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, announcing the Foundation’s new Loving Cities Index: “Considering the social and political moment, the public, private and philanthropic sectors must go beyond the normal separate silos approach to shift from a standards-based agenda where we only analyze shortcomings to a supports-based agenda where we focus on the resources needed for all students to overcome obstacles created by inequity and achieve high outcomes.”

What is our social and political moment that makes Schott’s new initiative so important?

Last month in Parkland, Florida, there was a tragedy—a school shooting in which 17 adolescents and adults were killed by a former student with a semi-automatic rifle. An outpouring of grief has turned the attention of the nation, as it should, to the insanity of the absence of restrictions on the possession of guns.

One cannot compare tragedies, of course, but it is essential that this latest tragedy not totally displace concern about another calamity happening right in front of us, but invisible nonetheless because we choose not to see it.  This one also involves students at school.  Last week, on the 50th anniversary of the release of the Kerner Commission Report, Linda Darling-Hammond and the Learning Policy Institute published a brief reminding us that economic inequality, residential segregation by income and race, and inequitable school funding improved briefly in the decade after the Kerner Report, but began once again to rise after 1980:

  • “U.S. childhood poverty rates have grown by more than 50% since the 1970s and are now by far the highest among OECD nations, reaching 22% in the latest published statistics.”
  • “In most major American cities, a majority of African American and Latino students attend public schools where at least 75% of students are from low-income families… For example, in Chicago and New York City, more than 95% of both Black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools….”
  • “Today, about half as many Black students attend majority White schools (just over 20%) as did so in 1988, when about 44% did so.”
  • “In most states, the wealthiest (school) districts spend at least two to three times what the poorest districts can spend per pupil…. Furthermore, the wealthiest states spend about three times what the poorer states spend.”

Half a century ago Jonathan Kozol named these same problems that kill children’s spirits and block their opportunities “death at an early age.”  Today these circumstances affect several million young people as our unequal society awards high honors to wealthy suburban high schools for producing National Merit Scholars and brands the schools in our cities’ poorest school districts with “D”s and “F”s on so-called school report cards issued by state governments.

In a must-read book published last fall—The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better—Harvard’s Daniel Koretz describes the catastrophic mistake in the test-and-punish school reform that has reigned for the past two decades: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Policymakers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (p. 123-124)

Our society has chosen to blame and punish our poorest schools—shutting them down, moving the students around to other schools, instituting privatization—instead of investing to support the teachers, make classes smaller, enrich curriculum and provide more counselors, along with trying to do something to alleviate poverty itself.  The Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index calls for a cross-sector effort to overturn today’s public policy that tests, punishes, and brands schools and teachers and children in our poorest communities.

What makes the Schott Foundation’s Loving Cities Index so important?

The Loving Cities Index Report redefines the problem of children left behind: “(T)wo facts remain true at a systems level: the public school system remains the primary institution of education for over 90% of students in America; and parental income remains the number one predictor of student outcomes—not type of public school, labor contract, or brand of assessment.  For far too long, efforts to improve educational outcomes have focused narrowly on the role of schools, classrooms and teachers, while ignoring the large and growing body of research that confirms what parents and families have long known—at the district level, health, housing, and parental employment opportunities are all intimately linked to high school and college attainment…  (A) Stanford University analysis of reading and math test sores from across the country found that, ‘Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.'”

The Loving Cities Index project encourages bridging services across schools and communities: “(T)he U.S. public school system continues to be our best hub to link families and students to the supports needed to thrive from birth… Providing students an opportunity to learn from birth is as much—if not more—the responsibility of mayors, county commissioners and city council members as it is superintendents, school boards, principals, teachers, and parents.”

The report continues: “A  new day requires that we no longer promote the false narrative that the American public education system is a failing proposition, which inaccurately places blame and policy focus on regulating principals, educators, students and parents… A new day requires that we take a more student-centered approach and commit to improving living environments as well as learning environments.”

The project begins with 10 cities judged on 24 indicators representing supports necessary for academic and economic success…”Ideally, we believe cities should achieve a  minimum of 80% of possible points for indicators of healthy living and learning to be considered a model Loving City….”  Today, with 52%, Minneapolis and Long Beach are the highest scorers, with Buffalo at 50% a close second.

Schott’s Loving Cities Index rates cities by CARE indicators–health resources and physical environment (prenatal health, in-school support staff, clean air, healthy food, health insurance, parks, and mental health), and rates schools by COMMITMENT indicators—school policies and practices fostering the development of each student’s unique potential (preschool suspension alternatives, K-12 suspension alternatives, school-to-prison alternatives, K-12 expulsion alternatives, anti-bullying, and early childhood education).

In a preface to the report, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, leader of Repairers of the Breach explains: “A large and growing body of research shows a clear connection between economic and racial inequality and opportunity gaps in areas like housing, health care and community involvement… The Loving Cities Index provides a frame to align policy-makers, philanthropy, and community members around a supports-based agenda, recognizing that the standards-based approach that has dominated education reform… for decades has failed to provide students an opportunity to learn.”

Instead of Building More Charter Schools for the Few, Improve Public Education for All

Roland S. Martin is a journalist and the host and managing editor of TV One’s News One Now. For years he has promoted market-based school choice. He recently moderated a town hall, “Is School Choice the Black Choice?” at Howard University. All the while Martin has been promoting school choice, Dr. John Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education (of which John Jackson is the President and CEO) have instead made the case for closing opportunity gaps in the public schools as the responsibility of a just society.  Here in a short, two-minute video from the Howard University town hall, is John Jackson, challenging Martin’s “false narrative” that public schools have failed the African American community. I urge you to watch the short video.

The town hall at Howard University followed the adoption last month of a resolution by the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, demanding investment in improving the public schools that serve the majority of children in our nation’s poorest schools and a moratorium on the expansion of charters until:

  • “Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.
  • “Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.
  • “Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate.
  • “(Charter schools) cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

Back in 2011, John Jackson was part of another panel moderated by Roland Martin. On that occasion, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was also one of the speakers.  As Martin continued to push the speakers to support school choice as the best way to meet the needs of our society’s poorest children, Rev. Jackson declared: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”  In the recent video, John Jackson asks how many Howard University students in the room attended public schools. When a mass of hands go up, Jackson notes all the high achieving African American public school graduates at Howard University and wonders, since most American students attend traditional public schools, why the better strategy for supporting black students wouldn’t be to ensure that the public schools in poorer African American communities are resourced generously.

The Schott Foundation’s headquarters is in Cambridge, and in A Question of Better Education for All, John Jackson elaborates on why improving the public schools that serve the many is a better idea than Massachusetts Question 2 that would lift the cap on the charter schools that serve the few: “For the past decade, Massachusetts has led the nation in academic achievement. Our students have even been top ranked internationally in a time when the country’s educational outcomes have slid year by year.  Massachusetts accomplished this by taking bold steps that impact all students, most importantly changing the state’s school funding system to invest more in schools in high need, low-income areas so that all students have a better opportunity to achieve. There is still critical work to be done to close persistent opportunity gaps in the system, but we won’t get there if we go in completely the wrong direction.  This would be to allow state officials to give up on investing in improving a system that serves all students in need.”

Jackson elaborates: “When charter schools, which now serve only 4% of the state’s public school students, were added to the Massachusetts model, they were never intended to be a comprehensive ‘education plan’ for a state or locality, but rather an experiment that might provide sparks of innovation whose best practices would be integrated into the main system. It is in that system that the great majority—a full 96%—of Massachusetts students are educated… Public schools and an equal commitment to all children are pillars of our democratic system… Charters run directly counter to this democratic value.”

“When the corporate concept of ‘competition’ is used to justify the argument for increasing the number of charter schools (and student enrollment in them), we need only remind ourselves that competition means winners and losers. Why would voters ever want to substitute that value for a commitment to ensuring a high quality education for every child?… Expanding the number of charter schools reinforces a caste system of private, charter and public schools… Equal education for all breaks the cycle of intergenerational poverty; it is the path to economic opportunity.  Investing in a great education for all children in the Commonwealth is the only way to create a broad-based, diverse, well-educated workforce that is a magnet for employers and can fuel economic growth across the state.  It also ensures full participation in our democratic society.”