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Aurora Institute

Rethinking the Achievement Gap (Part 1)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Matt Riggan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

GapThis post originally appeared at Next Generation Learning Challenges on March 22, 2016 and the Workshop School on March 19, 2016.

There are a lot of ways to think about equity, and a lot of ways to think about achievement. In the ed reform world, the most common is what we call the achievement gap: the quantifiable difference in test performance between poor and middle class kids. This concept has done a lot of good in highlighting inequities in our school systems, and creating a sense of urgency for change. But from a learning standpoint, this narrow understanding of equity has been terrible.

There are two reasons for this. First, schools (and school systems) focused narrowly on the achievement gap end up devoting most of their time, energy and resources to things that bring up test scores. It’s not that literacy and numeracy don’t matter (though on the math side much of what we force kids to learn isn’t really numeracy). It’s that other things matter just as much, if not more. A narrow focus on the achievement gap pushes all of those things to the margins.

Second, if you’re mostly focused on getting a specific body of knowledge into kids’ heads, you organize a school that seeks to minimize or eliminate anything that gets in the way of that work. You create systems that reward compliant behavior, because it keeps everyone on task. It’s efficient. But kids don’t own their behavior in these systems. When young people leave school, they have to make their own decisions. Learning to be independent and responsible is just as important as learning to base claims on evidence. But somehow we’ve decided that we need to sacrifice the former in service of the latter.

This is deeply counterproductive. Critical thinking, problem solving, self-direction and awareness, and even grit require agency – students’ capacity to shape the world around them, and the related belief that they possess that capacity. How can we cultivate such agency in an environment where every word and action is prescribed, measured, and monitored? How can we expect students to think critically when we tell them that being a “good” student requires them to uncritically submit to micromanagement of even the smallest actions, or to an environment where the sole means of regulating behavior consists of reward or punishment?

The alternative is to create a space where students get to define, shape, and reinforce the norms and culture of their school. This is a messy, inefficient, imperfect process. When it’s working, it feels miraculous. When it’s not, it feels chaotic and maddeningly inefficient. The important thing is that between those two poles lies the daily work of figuring out who we want to be individually and collectively, and striving to live out those ideals and values. This requires honest self-appraisal, difficult conversations, and nearly constant struggle. And it’s a huge investment of time and energy; time that could be spent testing students, differentiating instruction, and providing intensive support in specific areas of academic need. All of these things would be much more efficient strategies for reducing the “achievement gap.” And that’s exactly why the achievement gap is such a flawed way to think about the problem we’re really trying to address.

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Matthew Riggan is a co-founder of the Workshop School, a project-based high school within the School District of Philadelphia.