The Achievement Gap: Don’t forget the individuality of students behind the numbers

610 199 Vernon Billy

(Photo Credit: dcjohn/Flickr)

Originally published in California Schools Magazine

Over the last few months, I have participated in numerous discussions regarding the development of the state’s new accountability system, our new assessment system and the “system” that provides an education to California’s six million students. These discussions of accountability and assessment eventually turn toward reducing or eliminating the achievement gap in some form or another, and are typically focused on students who are low income, English learners, Latino or African American.

When we talk about the gap, we assign these labels as though labels alone will give life to the students behind the numbers. Unfortunately, they don’t. Labels may help paint a broad picture of the students that form the gap, but they don’t humanize these students. They don’t represent the individual potential each student brings to the classroom or the real-life circumstances that we know all too well can overtake their academic career.

I am encouraged that most of my colleagues understand that in order to address the achievement gap, it is necessary to also address the issues and circumstances that can influence a student’s academic achievement. In fact, I believe that awareness of this essential truth is as high as it has ever been in the education community.

To address the achievement gap, we (schools, cities, counties, community-based organizations and partners) must turn that awareness to action, and continue to vigorously search for strategies which address the myriad of health, environmental, cultural, social and economic circumstances of the students who are falling behind. We cannot view these factors through the lens of race alone, as though there were some innate correlation between a student’s socially constructed racial category and his or her academic achievement.

The American Anthropological Association said as much in its statement that, “the present day inequalities between so-called racial groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational and political circumstances.”

To give our students a true opportunity to make their aspirations into reality, we have to push beyond the labels.

Let’s consider this in terms of a couple of recent events that occurred in California. In the last year, entire families were temporarily displaced and schools shuttered due to the massive Southern California gas leak near Porter Ranch, an affluent and predominantly white and Asian community. A year from now, how will we judge the academic achievement of these students if we see a significant drop in achievement in the schools or district?

Conversely, how will we judge those who may be struggling with the effects of the far less-publicized lead contamination scare stemming from the Exide Technology battery recycling plant in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The Los Angeles Times editorial board has likened the Exide contamination to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Gov. Brown recently proposed $176 million to clean up residences, schools, daycare centers and parks within a 1.7 mile radius of the Exide facility, stating that it has “been a problem for a very long time.”

If children in the working class and predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Commerce and Huntington Park start displaying signs of learning disabilities and behavior issues — both of which are documented side effects of lead poisoning — do we continue to chalk up a drop in their school achievement simply to race or socio-economic status?

Or, what about the thousands of students and families in Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties that were devastated by the Valley Fire, or those in Amador and Calaveras counties that were ravaged by the Butte Fire in 2015? Collectively, those two fires scorched almost 150,000 acres and gutted 2,876 structures, 1,830 of which were residences. It’s hard to focus on academics for a student who has just lost his or her family home.

We can’t look at Sonoma County differently than Boyle Heights and we can’t look at Porter Ranch differently than Flint. Driving effective policy decisions to close the achievement gap requires us to be objective about the fact that these types of circumstances will affect the achievement of all students.

Comprehending the totality of circumstances that affects all students is a hard task, but it is a necessary one.

Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, who has explored this concept extensively in his writings on the achievement gap and education policy, sums up this point best when he says, “our focus on the gap, as opposed to changes in minority and disadvantaged students’ achievement itself, distracts us from critical initiatives, both inside and outside schools, to improve the performance of these students.”

We agree. And in this issue of California Schools, we explore partnerships and initiatives being developed around the state to address the achievement gap; we examine the progress of the new state accountability system and how additional data can help guide our resource decisions that support students; and we dive deeper into the “Black Minds Matter” report in my conversation with Ryan Smith, Executive Director of Education Trust-West. This issue of California Schools presents an opportunity to examine the strategies being employed to help students who make up the “achievement gap,” and helps us consider who they are, and where they live.

As we work to close the achievement gap, it’s appropriate to look at who these students are, and to not let labels and numbers define them or their academic potential.

Vernon Billy is CEO & executive director of the California School Boards Association


Vernon Billy

All stories by: Vernon Billy