The Rhetoric of the "Achievement Gap"
September 9, 2014
Sep 9, 2014
8 Min read time
On June 9, fresh from a major victory against Mayor Bill de Blasio over its rent-free use of publicly owned space, Success Academy, New York’s largest charter school network, announced that it plans to double its size over the next two years. The charter chain, run by Eva Moskowitz, wants to open fourteen new schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, targeting areas where “achievement is low.”
Its mantra is to narrow and ultimately close the “achievement gap.” Indeed, this is the mission of every self-described school reformer. In 2009 Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Moskowitz’s strongest ally and admirer, declared that “we are closing the shameful achievement gap faster than ever” (this turned out to be less than true). His schools chancellor Joel Klein proclaimed ”closing the insidious achievement gap” to be the nation’s “one last great civil-rights battle.” “The most important thing we can do is to close achievement gaps,” affirmed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “Making student achievement a higher priority couldn’t be more urgent,” intoned former D.C. schools commissioner Michelle Rhee last fall.
On its surface, achievement gap looks innocuous, a coy catchphrase like “trade imbalance” or “democratic deficit.” These words connote a mild disequilibrium, readily fixable by the right institutional tools. Its basic meaning—the persistent disparities in grades, test scores, graduation rates, and other metrics among white and nonwhite, rich and poor students—is simply factual. But the term, which began as a more or less neutral entry in the centrist lexicon of education policy, has obscured the structural inequalities of American education.
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“Achievement” is an appealing word. “Grades” and “scores” sound mechanical and impersonal, but achievement climbs and soars. It discovers and invents. It builds cities and nations. It is also a deeply humanist word, born of an idea of the individual as master of their fate, driven by inner passion to forge a path to self-made success. That the word has found such favor in American political culture is no surprise. “Let us, then, be up and doing, / With a heart for any fate; / Still achieving, still pursuing, / Learn to labor and to wait,”go the last lines of an 1838 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was for nearly a century this country’s most popular poet.
But the power of “achievement” as rhetoric is also the reason it fails as analysis. Its implicit values of hardy individualism and self-making have always been inimical to a more critical understanding of education inequality. In a sense, the reformers’ favorite phrase suffered from an inherent incongruity from the start: the romantic idealism of achievement sits awkwardly beside the simple, statistical “gap”—a plosive as short and plain as achievement is lofty and abstract.
Several critics have already pointed out other, deeper contradictions. In a recent interview, Barbara Madeloni, the newly elected president of the Massachusetts Teachers Union, pointed out a latent double standard in the term’s use:
We have these phrases — “achievement gap,” referencing racial differences in test scores, or “education is the civil rights issue of our time.”…You’re allowed to imply race if you’re a corporate reformer and the reforms are targeted in poor black and brown communities. But educators are not allowed to say the word “white,” and we’re not allowed to identify the racism and greed that’s at the core of corporate education “reform.”
Diane Ravitch, a leading opponent of corporate school reform, likewise wrote that
until the Wall Street guys, the high-tech titans, and the foundation moguls demand that poor children get the same quality of education that they want for their own children, I can’t take seriously their talk about “closing the gap,” no matter which adjective it takes.
• • •
These ambiguities of achievement as a policy term can make the causes of the gap it describes seem similarly multiple and mysterious. But time and again, the defining factor in test scores that purport to measure achievement has been not school type, or teacher ability, or class size—all classic campaigns of school reform—or gender, or even race, but poverty. Scores, grades, and graduation rates are only symptoms of this inequality. American students at the richest schools universally perform best as a group, nearly topping international rankings and leaving poor students mired in mediocrity. Income disparities between poor and rich families have long tracked disparities in educational outcomes, and since the seventies, as the fortunes of the very rich have boomed while those of the rest have stagnated or shrunk, the gulf in grades, extracurricular pursuits, graduation rates, and college enrollment has only widened. Rich parents plan their children’s preschool placement and tutoring regimens practically from the womb; poorer families, who lack the money, time, and connections for such intensive involvement, are put at a disastrous disadvantage from the very start.
The discourse of achievement isolates just one symptom of inequality and founds an entire policy program on it.
Despite the weight of these facts, privatizing reformers manage to recast poverty in the language of individual responsibility. “No Excuses,” reply charter school administrators, enforcing draconian disciplineand foreclosing any mention of class with a parental petulance barely more civil than “shut up.” More flatteringly, students at charter schools across the nation are dubbed “scholars“—a grandiose title for over-tested ten-year-olds. Like achievement, it sounds noble, a name for unique and driven minds. Yet it too distorts the meaning of a valuable word, by elevating the military strictness and empty repetition of much charter school instruction to the level of “scholarship,” while at the same time tacitly stigmatizing public schools, with their hordes of mere “students.”
The discourse of achievement isolates just one of the symptoms of inequality and founds an entire policy program on it, confining the discourse of education within the narrow bounds of individual initiative and motivation. It becomes about achievement, first and last. (An entire chain of New England charters is called Achievement First.) Thus an arch-reformer like Joel Klein can call the achievement gap the country’s “one last great civil-rights battle”—as if all the others had been won. To truly transform American education and end the achievement gap, we must be even more ready to confront the income gap, the health gap, the employment gap, and the housing gap—the unjust distribution of income, community resources, cultural capital, and government funding.
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Who measures and defines this achievement? Increasingly the answer is not lawmakers—not to mention teachers—but private companies and corporate mega-philanthropies. Achievement in their usage is really a byword for testing, attached to countless standardized exams (“achievement tests”), test-prep modules, and pilot programs. The term connotes a varied, human range of possibility and personality, while reducing students and teachers to data points, and curricula to “teaching to the test.” With pernicious irony, this kind of achievement, with its tone of dogged individualism, names a rigidly impersonal system of data-obsessed, test-driven technocracy. These organizations style themselves around education and civil rights, but they might be better branded the Achievement Industry.
Pearson, the multinational “learning company” that designs student and teacher evaluations (and reported $8.4 billion in revenue last year), operates an entire division devoted to Achievement Solutions. College Board, sole proprietor of the SAT and nominal nonprofit (whose former CEO took in $1.3 million a year) produces reams of reports, brochures, and memos on “Minority High Achievement,” “Languages Achievement,” and, of course, the achievement gap. In 2008 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured $1.4 million into five struggling high schools in a section of Charlotte, N.C. newly christened the Achievement Zone. The Zone’s first priority was necessarily to “train teachers and administrators to use test scores and grades.” To this end, each school would be appointed “a full-time, on-site data analyst who will closely monitor each school's progress.”
That the image of a white-coated number-cruncher dispensing tests, scribbling studious notes, and monitoring every fluctuation of every student’s data barely surprises us is evidence of the triumph of achievement. This logic—that an underperforming school can be reformed by data—is the purest form of the ideology of achievement. When curricula follow tests, the content of learning grows indistinguishable from its measurement. Standards come to quantify only themselves, with achievement as their alias. It can seem as though the data analyst is the real hero of the school-reform story, the achiever, and more tests, more scores, more data are the achievement. Meanwhile, the test-takers themselves are left “to labor and to wait.”
The word achievement and its associates—“success,” “excellence,” “scholar”—are not to blame, nor is their use always unwarranted: of course students achieve and succeed in countless ways, all the time. But the myriad ways in which they might succeed in and out of a classroom—in critical thinking, or civic activism, or artistic expression—have been cut and compressed to only what is quantifiable by testing and learnable by rote exercise. This radical reduction of pedagogic imagination has been masked by a language of self-motivated individual flourishing, which obscures both the social effects of inequality and the empty quantification of endless testing.
The case against the culture of testing is hardly new; opponents of reform have argued it powerfully for the better part of two decades. But the rhetoric of achievement which expresses and perpetuates this culture has yet to be confronted with similar force. Like any successful ideology, test-obsessed and profit-driven reform uses familiar language to sell an alien agenda—the corporatization of public education. If the verbal framing of the struggle over education reform remains restricted to the moralizing individualism of achievement, the war of words will be fought not just on reformers’ terms but with reformers’ terminology.
Achievement shouldn’t be a dirty word, but if it is to persist in the lingua franca of education policy, it must denote a much more expansive, humane conception of success, beyond the tautological metrics of testing. And it must never be isolated from the larger social forces—from stagnant wages to persistent segregation to mass incarceration—that drive education inequality.
Of course, these structures operate at the level of an entire society, and while some steps toward reversing them are relatively achievable, such as democratizing teachers’ unions and their control of curricula, others demand society-wide redistributions of power and money. Nevertheless, in facing a movement that has relied so much on forms of verbal seduction to advance its projects, a first step of any counter-strategy must be to reclaim and redeem the language of achievement, toward a fuller, fairer understanding of injustice in American education. Achievement is not a false ideal; instead, this language is too valuable, and too true, to be further eroded by profit-driven school reform.
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September 09, 2014
8 Min read time