In the 21st century, calls to “close the achievement gap” have been ubiquitous in education circles. Yet, as policymakers and educators devote more attention to the problem, a growing number of commentators have begun to worry that the dominance of this “gap” framing of conversations about race and education may be counterproductive.
One concern is that this framing promotes deficit-based mindsets by assuming that White students’ outcomes should be the standard to which Black, Latinx, and Native American students aspire. Secondly, by focusing on student outcomes, the “achievement gap” framing may hide the role that broader structural forces play in producing these disparities. Instead, some scholars argued, we should frame the issue as an “education debt” to highlight the ways in which students of color have been systematically disadvantaged in education throughout the country’s history.
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These arguments are beginning to have an effect. For example, Teach For America announced last year that it is retiring the “achievement gap” term to instead talk of closing “opportunity gaps.” Until now, however, there has been no experimental evidence to help us understand the effect of the terms we use when discussing race and education. We, therefore, conducted a survey experiment with more than 1,500 teachers to learn more.
We hypothesized that the phrase “racial inequality in educational outcomes” would evoke more support for equity-focused policies than the phrase “racial achievement gap.” While substantively synonymous, the “racial inequality” framing evokes social justice connotations while the “achievement gap” framing may instead play into negative stereotypes about students of color.
In our national sample of pre-K-12 teachers, we randomly assigned respondents to receive one of two different versions of our survey items. One version used the term “racial achievement gap,” while the other used “racial inequality in educational outcomes.” The first item read: “As you know, there is [a racial achievement gap/racial inequality in educational outcomes] between Black and White students in the U.S. Thinking about all of the important issues facing the country today, how much of a priority do you think it is to [close the racial achievement gap/end racial inequality in educational outcomes] between Black and White students?”
The results supported our hypothesis: We found that teachers placed less priority on inequalities when those inequalities were framed as an “achievement gap.” Specifically, 78 percent of teachers who received the version of the question referencing “inequality” responded that ending racial inequality in educational outcomes was either a “high priority” or “essential” (versus a medium priority, low priority, or not a priority). However, only 70 percent of teachers who received the “gap” version responded that closing the achievement gap was a high priority or essential.
We found that teachers placed less priority on inequalities when those inequalities were framed as an 'achievement gap.'"
Furthermore, this overall difference was driven by White teachers (who made up 70 percent of the respondents): Among White teachers, 81 percent who received the “inequality” version responded that ending racial inequality in educational outcomes was either a “high priority” or “essential,” while only 68 percent who received the “achievement gap” version responded this way.
As a study of teachers in particular, this work does not provide insight into how the general public may respond to the achievement gap term or its broader surrounding discourse. People outside the field of education may hold different connotations for these terms and may be affected differently when they encounter them in policy debates or news stories.
Nevertheless, this study lends empirical support to the concern that the “achievement gap” framing may have unintended negative consequences. Our results suggest that the language we use to describe educational outcomes by race can affect the priority teachers place on ending inequalities. Teachers, education leaders, researchers, and journalists should therefore give thought to the messaging and language they use when discussing issues regarding race and education.
Perhaps an especially important arena in which we should be thoughtful about the terms we use is that of policy. We know from research outside of education that language affects people’s policy preferences. For example, Republicans are more likely to endorse a policy described as a “carbon offset” compared with the same policy when it is called a “carbon tax.” In policy debates and ballot initiates, the public may be more likely to endorse an equity-focused policy if its aim is described as “ending racial inequality in educational outcomes” versus “closing racial achievement gaps.” More experimental work is needed to better understand the nuances of how language around race and education affects public opinion.
Ending educational inequality will require shedding light on it. However, it is important that we understand how to frame these conversations in the most productive ways possible. Beyond the use of specific terms, we must better understand how the framing of educational disparities affects people’s cognition and how those framings may interact with people’s background knowledge and personal experience. Such insight will help guide solutions-oriented conversations for advancing educational equity and excellence.
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A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as Is G-A-P a Four-Letter Word?