Opinion
Student Achievement Commentary

Let’s Focus on Gaps in Opportunity, Not Achievement

By H. Richard Milner — May 06, 2011 6 min read

Research tells us again and again that when students do not achieve, their underachievement is a function of the opportunities that they either have—or have not had. There is no question that opportunity gaps are pervasive in education, and, by opportunity gaps, I mean stark differences in students’ exposure and experiences—their economic resources, the qualifications of their teachers, the rigor of the curricula they study, their teachers’ expectations, and their parents’ involvement in their education.

Consider, for instance, an inquisitive middle school student I’ll call Jasmine. Jasmine is interested in science and poses interesting questions in class, completes her homework, studies hard, and even stays after school for additional assistance when she is having trouble grasping the content. Meanwhile, Lauren lives in another part of the same city, but in a more robustly resourced school. While likely similar in terms of motivation, interest, and effort, these students are not experiencing the same opportunities, which makes it difficult to compare their achievement.

Jasmine is taught by a teacher new to the profession who has not gone through a rigorous teacher-training program. That said, Jasmine’s parents are supportive of her and encourage her to work hard, and are active in the parent-teacher association at her school.

Lauren’s teacher, on the other hand, is much more experienced, having taught for longer than a decade. Lauren’s teacher also has had rigorous training, and her school has resources that allow teachers to consistently participate in professional-development opportunities. Moreover, Lauren’s parents are college-educated (and perhaps even scientists themselves) and able to provide support for Lauren on difficult science content at home. In contrast, Jasmine’s parents may not be college-educated. When Lauren’s parents do not have the intellectual prowess to help her with homework, they may hire a tutor to help her, while Jasmine’s parents do not have the resources to do so.

At the heart of the differences between Jasmine’s and Lauren’s experiences are opportunities beyond their cognitive ability, will, or skill. These are opportunity gaps.

Because student learning opportunities are not equally allocated or available, how can we expect achievement scores to be equal? Yet there is a litany of discourse on an “achievement gap” that focuses an inordinate amount of time on the issue. I would argue that, rather than focusing on achievement gaps (outcomes or the end result) between students with varying ranges of opportunity, we should be focusing on opportunity (processes—that is, teaching and learning), as well as structural and institutional resources available to both teachers and students.

Rather than focusing on achievement gaps (outcomes or the end result) between students ... we should be focusing, I believe, on opportunity.”

It is quite sad that we live and operate within an educational system that does not work for all students. The question remains, however: How and why do some teachers and students succeed in spite of inequitable opportunities in education? It should be made clear that urban and highly diverse contexts are rich sites of human capital where there are many positive features from which to draw and learn.

However, what do teachers do to succeed in urban and highly diverse settings that are sometimes inundated with institutional and structural challenges? Although the media rarely report about them, successful urban and highly diverse schools do exist in the United States. Students and teachers do whatever it takes in many of these school settings to transcend the inequitable opportunities they face.

At the heart of success in highly diverse and urban schools is teachers’ ability to transform their mind-sets about their students and develop relationships with them to maximize student learning opportunities. What has become clear in my research is that teachers who transform their practices to address and close opportunity gaps do the following:

Reject colorblindness. Successful teachers rethink persistent notions that they should avoid recognizing race and how race operates on individual and systemic levels in education. These teachers understand and acknowledge how race-central experiences can influence ideologies, attitudes, belief systems, and consequently teaching practices. Rejecting colorblindness allows teachers to understand fundamentally that race matters for all involved in education and to recognize the multiple ways in which race intersects with educational opportunity and practices. The particular challenge for teachers is to move beyond individualized ideas about race and racism to an understanding of how systemic barriers related to racism can shape opportunity.

Work through and transform cultural conflicts. Successful teachers understand that cultural conflicts are inevitable in the classroom. Opportunity gaps can persist because teachers’ cultural ways of knowing, which are often grounded in Eurocentric, middle-class cultural notions and ideologies, take precedence over those of their students, especially students living in poverty, those whose first language is not English, and those who are of color. Teachers must understand the important role culture plays in curriculum development and teaching and engineer learning opportunities that speak to and from the point of view of students.

Understand meritocracy. Successful teachers understand that student performance depends on factors and opportunities other than hard work, ability, skill, intelligence, and persistence. In other words, situations far beyond students’ control and merit can affect their access to opportunities and consequently their performance. Educators need to become mindful of, or at least willing to acknowledge, the many factors beyond merit that shape students’ academic and social success, including factors that are passed down from one generation to the next in students’ families.

Reject low expectations and deficit mind-sets. Successful teachers focus on student assets. Some teachers focus on what students do not bring to the classroom rather than the many tools, abilities, and skills they do bring. Teachers need to keep in mind that students will generally meet the expectations that are set for them—both high and low.

Avoid context-neutral thinking and practices. Successful teachers understand nuances and idiosyncrasies inherent in their particular teaching environments. Teachers must understand the state, city, and local community surrounding the school, as well as the school itself. For instance, teachers may learn to teach a subject such as math, language arts, history, or science, but fail to understand how to teach that subject well in the social context of a particular location. They must become aware of the complex social norms and inputs that influence their ability to teach effectively.

While many forces continue to perpetuate and reinforce opportunity gaps, teachers can (and do!) make a difference in closing divisions. Similar to those in other professions, teachers must learn new skills and develop them thoughtfully throughout their careers. Teachers are not born with the insights shared here. But they can learn them, and they should be empowered and supported (not vilified) in doing so. Teachers must start where they are, but not stay there.

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of Education Week as Let’s Focus on Gaps in Opportunity, Not Achievement

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