We hear a lot of talk about achievement gaps these days, and rightfully so. America has only grown more diverse, but the gaps have barely closed at all.
When we discuss achievement gaps, we need to understand that they’re more than just percentages on a screen. The gaps we see in achievement for different groups of students are just symptoms of an underlying problem: opportunity gaps.
WHAT IS AN OPPORTUNITY GAP?
Professor Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado offers a helpful explanation:
Children learn when they have opportunities to learn. When denied those opportunities, they fall behind, and we get the devastating achievement gaps. But when they are provided with rich opportunities to learn, they thrive, and the achievement gaps close.
So, the opportunity gap is the independent variable in this situation. That means the achievement gap is the symptom, not the whole problem.
This is really profound, and I don’t think it’s mentioned enough in our conversations surrounding achievement gaps. We obviously want all students to be successful, but that doesn’t mean that all students have an equal shot at success when they enter the classroom door each day.
Not everyone has the same access to valuable learning opportunities, whether in or out of school, and we have to find a resolution to that before we can meaningfully begin to close achievement gaps.
HOW DO OPPORTUNITY GAPS HAPPEN?
As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan points out, “Tragically, the opportunity gap starts before kindergarten and continues into the college years.”
To put it simply, the opportunity gap is the culmination of the many inequalities that can impact people and their ability to succeed academically. Think about it: How do race, class, gender and other such factors intersect in ways that can affect someone’s achievement in the classroom?
For example, we know that minority students are disproportionately placed in special education programs or low-level classes, which denies many of these students access to the rigorous instruction that they may need. We also have a tremendous lack of teachers who are prepared to teach in culturally diverse schools.
Also, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds often do without the things many of us take for granted, like internet access or an annual family vacation. When families can’t afford to take their children to museums or provide them with digital educational resources, students miss out on the enrichment that their peers receive.
When students don’t have access to valuable learning experiences in their everyday lives, it’s harder for school to seem meaningful and relevant.
THE RIGHT APPROACH
If we want to close achievement gaps, we’ll need to have the right mindset. For one, we should spend more time investigating why there are so many disparities in learning opportunities and then work to do something about it.
Communities must work together to embrace diversity and ensure that citizens feel included and protected, while schools must work to broaden the scope of their services for all students. It won’t be easy, but remember: “Challenge” is just another word for “opportunity.”
An original version of this piece appeared on Education Post. Photo by Asheesh, Twenty20-Licensed.