Hyping the “achievement gap”

March 25, 2009

RANDY CHILDS makes a series of excellent points about what is completely wrong with Obama's education agenda ("Why Obama is wrong about our schools"). His comments about explaining or exploiting the "achievement gap" made me think of a recent study I saw about how education reform is talked about.

"Achievement gap" has become the lingo used to frame "what's wrong" with U.S. public schools. But for most of the era since the civil rights movement, education activists--and federal policy makers--talked about "equal educational opportunity."

What's the difference? "Achievement gap" puts all the burden on the students--whether they make certain test scores or not, whether they succeed or fail. "Equal educational opportunity" puts the focus where it should be--on the education system and on society at large as being responsible to make sure that every child has a high quality, well-funded education.

One thing No Child Left Behind was 100 percent successful in was erasing equal educational opportunity as a concern for education policy, and even as a topic in the media. Instead, all we ever hear about is the "achievement gap."

The study tracked newspaper articles and op-ed pieces from 1981 to 2006. In the New York Times, for example, the study found this flip-flop on how education was talked about:

"Equal Educational Opportunity"
1981-90--86 articles
1991-98--66 articles
1999-2000--4 articles
2001-06--12 articles

"Achievement Gap"
1981-90--4 articles
1991-98--14 articles
1999-2000--59 articles
2001-06--217 articles

The study found similar patterns in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and Washington Post. (You can view the full study at www.elladvocates.org.)

This shift in terminology reflects a 20-year project to "change the topic" from equity and funding to individual student achievement--a shift that both Democrats and Republicans have pushed.

Of course, the point is really not about terminology, but rather about where our focus should be in the fight to fix our schools. It isn't about test scores, it's about money, access and equality. And it's a disgrace that Obama's education policy only deepens Bush's, in word and in deed.
Jeff Bale, Lansing, Mich.

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