The Opportunity Gap

I usually cringe whenever someone brings up the idea of “achievement gap” and school reform. The cause of my cringe is that, often times, our discussions of achievement gap are superficial and fruitless – and sometimes lead to policies very harmful to the most vulnerable in the school experience.  It simply is too important of a topic to be dealt with superficially! Achievement gap often refers to the disparity between one group and others as it relates to performance in school (often times through the means of a singular, high-stakes standardized test).  People often infer the disparity between racial groups on these tests when discussing achievement gap.  The end result is that the public walks away seeing that one race is outperforming another race – and yet has little helpful data to pinpoint the cause for this disparity.  The burden, therefore, is often placed upon students from marginalized populations of race, such as African-American, Latino, or Native-American, to pick up the pace.  And, punitive measures are placed upon schools for something that, I’ll argue, it mostly inherits!

Rather than look at the “achievement gap”, I prefer to address the “opportunity gap” amongst students.  It’s a more honest and fruitful approach to addressing the differences amongst our kids. An opportunity gap examines the disparity between children as it relates to their opportunities to learn, such as play with peers, involvement in organized activities, and a rich and broad curriculum, that may exist between various subgroups – including race.  This almost always means that we need to emphasize issues related to social class.  One of my favorite books on the topic is Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods.  The amazing thing about Lareau’s study is the richness of her data (she interviewed 88 families and closely observed 12 families).  Click HERE for Lareau’s explanation of this study.

The fascinating result was a demonstration of the inequalities that exist among families – the inequalities that schools inherit.  Here’s a Table from her study that demonstrates the activities organized for children, with the variables of race, gender, and social class taken into account.

Unequal Childhoods

Notice that the disparity of opportunity is actually between social class, not race nor gender.  This, in no way, is a denial of systemic racism.  Actually, it might reveal a disturbing consequence of it in our country seeing that way too many of our fellow Americans who are non-White happen to be mired in poverty! Test scores usually mirror this social inequality.

If we are serious about reforming schools to better serve ALL of our students, I think it would be wise for us to first do away with our infatuation with high-stakes standardized tests and punitive measures placed upon schools for not closing “achievement gaps” on those tests.  Then, there are some reforms that we can collectively – and individually as a district – embark on that promise to provide some lasting positive dividends.

In terms of better serving marginalized populations of race, WAPS can:

  1. Connect with communities from these populations (I plan to do this as a school board member!)
  2. Emphasize culturally responsive teaching that looks upon students’ cultural backgrounds as assets rather than deficits (we are diligent about this at Winona State University when we prepare our teachers)
  3. Reassess and deliberate about classroom management techniques (WAPS is already doing this – and we should partner with more community members on this front -see point #1).

In terms of closing the opportunity gap, WAPS can:

Promote and grow our wonderful Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program.

I recently was interviewed by a local media outlet, and I mentioned ECFE.  The reporter stopped me and asked: “What was the name of that program again?” It’s a shame that much of our community does not know about WAPS’ wonderful ECFE program.  My family benefits greatly from the preschool and parent education opportunities offered by ECFE.  In fact, the families who are served by ECFE are near and dear to my heart – and are at the forefront of my mind as I envision serving on the school board.

Here’s what I’d like to see us do:

  • Offer more high quality and affordable preschool classes for our children – and at an earlier age! Think about what a robust, FREE, 3 and 4 old preschool program might do for our entire district as our kids get older! This is a real, tangible way to close opportunity gaps.
  • Promote and expand parenting education.  There’s magic (it’s not really magic, but love among people always seems like magic) that goes on as these parents connect with one another and with their parent educators.

How do we do this?  One key step is to seek state support and elect individuals in state offices who are committed to closing opportunity gaps. Another key step is to elect school board members who are committed to closing opportunity gaps.  With that said, I kindly ask for your vote.

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