Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Stop Talking About ‘Gaps’ in Education—Talk About Harm

Call it what it is
By Bettina L. Love — August 18, 2023 3 min read
Conceptual "achievement" Gap illustration of a large silhouette of a white child with a smaller silhouette of a black child contained inside. In the background are faded newspaper pages and data bar charts and line graphs.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When I was just starting out as a college professor almost 15 years ago, there was one piece of advice I received from almost every older colleague: “Publish or perish.”

So, with fear in each keystroke, I wrote. I was interested in researching the educational experiences of students of color, and there was a word I endlessly came across that consumed the field of education at the time and to this day—“gap.” Each research article I read told me that there was some type of disparity between Black and white students resulting in an achievement gap, learning gap, income gap, and funding gap.

I read research report after research report that never seemed to explain why white students were “outperforming” Black and brown students, but using the word “gap” somehow justified the separation. The word was ever-present yet nebulous.

See Also

Illustration of a boy standing on an open book facing large shadowy hands stopping his progress.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock/Getty Images

Articles and reports filled with data forecast racial disparities in achievement because of a host of socioeconomic factors, language barriers, and public-health issues. One Education Week reporter wrote, “Many experts have since asserted that achievement gaps are the result of more subtle environmental factors and ‘opportunity gaps’ in the resources available to poor versus wealthy children.” Those “experts” rarely mention racial prejudice or discrimination.

Research reports on “gaps” typically fail to recognize racism, anti-Blackness, discrimination, or capitalism as an explanation for these differences. Eminent scholar H. Richard Milner writes that opportunity gaps “show inequities in systems, structures and practices, among other factors, that can prevent children from reaching their potential.” Explanations like Milner’s are needed and a breath of fresh air in such a polluted space of downplaying harm against Black and brown students.

And I would add that, at its core, the “opportunity gap” shows this nation’s racist practices of maintaining inequality through systematically denying opportunities to students of color (e.g., the end of affirmative action and denying Advanced Placement classes).

Similar to how they use “gap,” researchers also use the verbiage “cultural mismatch” to explain away why mostly white teachers lack the cultural knowledge of their students’ home, community, or language to relate to their students of color. These “cultural mismatches” often lead white teachers to have negative assumptions about their Black and brown students. The unchallenging and innocent language of a “cultural mismatch” reinforces the notion that white teachers and Black students’ relationships often exist without a power dynamic, implicit bias, racism, white privilege, and domination.

When I started writing for publication lest I perish, I followed right along placing that blame for the failures of our education system on the faceless, unindictable but infamous arbitrator of educational injustice: the “gap.”

However, over the years, I have learned that the word obscures the harm of racism and anti-Blackness, which are the root causes of the so-called “gap.” To use “gap” implies that white students “outperforming” Black students on standardized tests just somehow happened or is the failure of Black children and their families themselves. Invoking the word “gap” when discussing racial inequality in our education system makes racism illegible. Calling this nation’s failure to adequately and equitably fund Black students’ education a “funding gap” removes the intent of white supremacy to remain in power by underfunding students of color.

The word “gap” also fails to acknowledge the power dynamic that is maintained by withholding and hoarding resources from Black and brown students. It would be easy to think, then, that “gaps” could be closed without any fundamental redistribution of power and resources. But working on eliminating these differences without an anti-racist aim perpetuates racism by pretending it doesn’t exist.

Language is one of our most powerful tools in fighting injustice. If our language does not describe the actual harm and root causes of racial disparities, then we will never address the issues to advance racial justice in education.

Students of color are not experiencing a “gap”; they are experiencing harm, racism, and anti-Blackness.

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Spotlight Spotlight on Inclusion & Equity
This Spotlight will help you examine disparities in districts’ top positions, the difference between equity and equality, and more.
Equity & Diversity The Battle to Drop Native American Mascots Goes On, as Some Communities Reinstate Them
The larger trend to remove Native American mascots and logos comes from a national racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd in 2020.
6 min read
A woman plays a drum during a "No Honor in Racism Rally" in front of TCF Bank Stadium before an NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Kansas City Chiefs, Oct. 18, 2015, in Minneapolis. The battle to change the use of Native Americans in logos, team names and fan-driven behavior has often been in the bright spotlight due to major sports teams. Protests are being planned at the Super Bowl once more in response to the Kansas City Chiefs.
A woman plays a drum during a "No Honor in Racism Rally" in front of TCF Bank Stadium before an NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Kansas City Chiefs, Oct. 18, 2015, in Minneapolis. The battle to change the use of Native Americans in logos, team names and fan-driven behavior has often been in the bright spotlight due to major sports teams. Protests are being planned at the Super Bowl once more in response to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Alex Brandon/AP
Equity & Diversity Opinion You Should Be Teaching Black Historical Contention
How to responsibly teach this critical component of Black history instruction —and why you should.
Brittany L. Jones
4 min read
A student raises their hand to ask a question before a group of assorted historical figures.
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Opinion 2 Billion People Celebrate Lunar New Year. Your Class Can, Too
Many school districts are putting the upcoming holiday on their calendars. Guests, music, food, and red envelopes can help bring the festival alive.
Sarah Elia
4 min read
 Illustration depicting a vibrantly colored dragon winding through traditions practiced during the lunar new year.
Changyu Zou for Education Week