Opinion

The Dangerous Narrative That Lurks Under the 'Achievement Gap'

—Skip Sterling for Education Week

And the counternarrative about Black student potential

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When we hear the words "achievement gap," many of us think about Black students underperforming academically compared with their White peers. Federal, state, and local governmental agencies have been called on to study the gap. Presidents, governors, mayors, and school personnel all speak about the need to close it. If you heard the words "achievement gap" and directly associated it with failing Black students, teachers, and schools, you have been directly influenced by a dangerous narrative.

This narrative, which has taken root in our news and politics, insinuates that Black students are academically inferior to their White counterparts. It tells the story of a miserable Black existence filled with poverty, dysfunctional families, and absentee fathers. According to this narrative, Black students are not only ill-equipped to handle the rigors of academia, but also innately prone to violence, drug use, and hypersexuality.

About This Project


In this special Opinion project, Education Week convened researchers and educators to explore how even subtle language choices can reflect and inform how we think about student potential.

This special project is supported by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors' own.

Read more from the package.

For many people, a good school is synonymous with a White school. Indeed, one 2016 study by researchers Chase M. Billingham and Matthew O. Hunt found that for every 1 percentage point increase in the Black enrollment at a hypothetical school, parents were 1.7 percent less likely to enroll their children in that school.

And this anti-Black narrative not only affects parents' perceptions of school quality, but also teachers' perceptions of their students and their abilities.

This narrative is false.

The concept of the Black/White achievement gap as it is widely understood is a tool of oppression—and a total fabrication. Indeed, this "gap" is no more a true reflection of the potential of Black students than the achievement gap between Asian-American and White students reflects the academic potential of White students. It is true that many Black students and schools are not performing well on a variety of measures of academic success, but these outcomes go beyond school achievement; they are directly linked to systemic racism, unequal treatment, and the denial of opportunities for Black families subjugated to second-class citizenship.

"For many people, a good school is synonymous with a White school."

I contend that there is a counternarrative that tells a much different story of achievement and oppression. The counternarrative speaks of systemic racism, segregated and unequal schools, red-lining, undervalued property in Black neighborhoods, blight, White privilege, and White wealth built on the back of Black oppression.

White supremacy—a system of dominance in which White people overwhelmingly control political, economic, and cultural power—makes people believe that majority-White schools are successful because White students are smarter and more disciplined. To believe this, you must turn a blind eye to how centuries of racism have denied opportunities to Black people and government policies that have ravished Black neighborhoods.

Take for instance the G.I. Bill, which helped propel White families out of poverty and accumulate wealth through homeownership. This great opportunity was denied to Black veterans for whom the dream of homeownership often became an illusion. The major racial disparities in this bill can directly be tied to White wealth accumulation and educational opportunity disparities for Blacks. However, when Black student achievement is discussed we too often forget the economic and political conditions that contribute to the plight of these students. The history of ruthlessness is dismissed and forgotten.

Nearly 25 years ago, scholars Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate IV made the case for this counternarrative in their influential article "Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education." They rooted their analysis of school equity on three central propositions: "Race is a significant factor in determining inequity in the United States," "United States society is based on property rights," and "the intersection of race and property creates an analytic tool through which we understand social (and, consequently, school) inequity."

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It is only because of disenfranchisement and systemic racism that we still ignore this counternarrative and blame Black students for their own lack of educational opportunities.

When I hear words like "the achievement gap," I understand that certain schools are designated "failing" because it fits the narrative of White supremacy. If we truly cared about the education of Black students, we would dismantle the institutions of White supremacy that help keep Black families in a cycle of poverty—the judicial system that forces many Blacks to live in a police state through unfair sentencing, the health-care system that fails to equitably treat Black patients with preventative services and care, the private job sector that discriminates against Black job seekers.

We need more White voices bringing attention to the racist institutions and more people actively working to dismantle them. Imagine how quickly conditions would change if we shuttered the doors of White neighborhood schools or underfunded predominately White schools to the extent we routinely do to majority-Black schools. Black students deserve educators who are willing to challenge the conditions that help create school failure, not punish students and schools who are underperforming.

Vol. 39, Issue 16, Page 19

Published in Print: December 11, 2019, as A Counternarrative to The 'Achievement Gap'
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