I’m going to connect a couple of pretty disparate events. The connection seems pretty clear to me. So does a response. I hope that it will be for you as well.
I’ll begin with part of what Jan Resseger shared last week in her blog post, ” Why We Should Talk About Opportunity Gaps Instead of Acjievement 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 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 (and I would add “teachers). 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.”
NOTE: I would add that current focus on achievement has also included teachers in the toxic presumption of root causes.
My second experience involves Chinese buffets (yup, really). I’m a big fan. I have a pretty set routine when I go there. I work my way through my favorite dishes and usually finish the meal with a final trip for ice cream. My usual dining partner loves fortune cookies so I’m in the habit leaving mine to her … never breaking open the packaging or the cookie to read what ever nonsense the fortune cookie writer (there’s a career for you) thought might alter the course of my life. This week, however, my usual dining partner was unavailable but, craving comfort food, I stopped in. After my usual march through sushi, salt and pepper squid, green beans, etc., I decided to pass on the ice cream. Waiting for my waitress to return with my change, I found myself drawn to the lone fortune cookie. What the heck? Why Not? I could use a laugh.
I got a laugh. So did the customers seated around me wondering what the heck was going on with the old guy with white hair, laughing there all by himself.
Susan Scott (in her book, Fierce Conversations) wrote about her elementary school daughter’s excitement when she shared that she had had an ‘apostrophe’ at school that day… really meaning ‘epiphany’.
My epiphany was equally exciting. I realized that when Russell Ackoff and the fortune cookie writers are on the same page, you’d better pay attention!
The right thing isn’t Achievement Gaps. We don’t need more data from mandated assessments to tell us that some kids are “learning” and some aren’t (and the ones who do come from wealthier homes). The right thing is Opportunity Gaps. But it’s not just Opportunity Gaps that exist in impoverished neighborhoods and schools struggling to continue their programs in art, music, extra-curriculars, etc.
It’s also the gaps we create ourselves.
Wait? What? That we create? What gaps do we create?
OK, this is where it gets challenging. What if we, in “doing school” as we have for years as students and more years as teachers, administrators, etc., are actually limiting opportunities? And what if we don’t have to become sign carrying activists that seek to publicly engage folks in changing local, state, or federal policies to insure greater opportunities for more kids? What if we can begin to address the issue of opportunity gaps right in our own school?
Ken Robinson, in one of his highly acclaimed and frequently viewed TED Talks, shares how schools as most of us experience(d) them were designed around the factory model – i.e., they were designed to accomplish their goals with efficiency. One of the ways in which that efficiency could be accomplished was by grouping kids by age or, as Robinson so eloquently phrased it, by their date of manufacture. But we know that in any class of age grouped kids, there is significant variance in readiness… readiness to play well together, readiness to get along with peers, readiness to read, etc. They persist in being different from one another. It’s precisely in these differences and our response to them that we can engage in closing the opportunity gap.
A few Examples
A second grader is struggling to read. OMG, what will happen if he/she gets to third grade and still can’t read well enough? How will they read the books that we use for social studies, math, and geography? Let’s get them some extra help. Oh but wait, that extra help has to happen during a non-academic class… so we’ll just use the art or music periods. Opportunity missed.
An 8th grader is great in math. We’ll start her in Algebra. Her friend seems to find math a struggle so we’ll keep him in regular math. Too bad he can’t be in the advanced math track in high school now. Opportunity missed.
Parents are concerned that their pre-schooler doesn’t seem to be understanding her letters as fast as her sister did. Good thing we have pre-school screening. We’ll get her some extra help right away. Maybe we can get her some additional support if we classify her with a minor learning challenge. Oops, very few kids ever get de-classified once in the program AND the gap between that child and his/her peers actually widens! Lots of opportunities missed.
We want out kids to have 21st Century skills. We want them to be inquisitive. We want them to be good questioners. We want them to be able to discern truth from falsehoods. We want then to independent learners. We want them to develop good social emotional dispositions. But wait, our most recent state assessment results were lower than last year’s. We need a new reading program to help fix that. That’s right just followed the scripted lesson plans. “Wish I had time to answer your question, young lady. But I’ve got this stuff to cover before the supervisor stops by.” Opportunity missed.
You get the idea. We are depriving kids on a daily basis of opportunities to make choices, to choose how to learn, to explore with caring adults how they want to be… how they should be. We’re creating opportunity gaps unconsciously. We are doing this with rich kids, middle class kids and poor kids alike.
If opportunity matters, what policies, practices, procedures are in place in your school that are counterproductive? When’s the last time that you and your colleagues talked about this? When’s the last time that you and your colleagues asked if, based on things that are supported or not supported, you really value being intentional about providing opportunities and closing the opportunity gaps that exist in your school?
Shouldn’t we each take a moment to consider the opportunities we offer to kids… to one another? Shouldn’t we take a moment and ask ourselves what opportunities were important to us? Shouldn’t we take a moment to consider what opportunities are important to our kids and what our kids need?
Why don’t we do this more? What would happen if we did? If you did? If opportunity matters shouldn’t we at least try harder?
Maybe we should all read more fortune cookies!