Those “So-called” Achievement Gaps

I am disappointed to see Jonathan Kozol, a lion in the struggle for education equity, refer to “so-called” achievement gaps.


Ingraham High School in Seattle, WA, is both racially and economically diverse. Of the 1051 students, half are low income, 30 percent are White, 30 percent Asian, 24 percent African American, and 12 percent Latino. In 2010, 65 percent of Ingraham’s White students were proficient in Math, compared to only 5 percent (yes, 5 percent) of African American students and 16 percent of Latinos.

How’s that for a “so-called” achievement gap? The question is whether district leaders in Seattle (and in other cities, most of which have similar schools) are up to doing something about it.

-Parker Baxter

11 Replies to “Those “So-called” Achievement Gaps”

  1. You sort of set up a straw man here in your argument. Kozol isn’t arguing that there isn’t an achievement gap, but that the term “achievement gap” is too restrictive for the actual problem, and that in addition to the actual achievement, perhaps something should be done about the mass of other problems facing the students that earned the low test scores.L4

  2. Matt is right. Kozol doesn’t deny that there is an achievement gap. But he argues, forcefully and to my mind cogently, that this gap has its origins outside the classroom. The so-called achievement gap, real though it is, is really an opportunity gap, and that begins long before a child enters school.

  3. I’ll give an “A-men” to Matt and add a thought.
    If we want to look at gaps in achievement we should look at differences in students’ gain scores. With the developing discussion regarding assessing teachers with value added measures, it seems surprising that examining students absolute test scores rather than their growth from year to year, is seldom questioned.

  4. Great to have the academic evidence behind it as well, but just to be clear, Kozol wasn’t arguing for the sole primacy of academic achievement as a measure of success in low-income communities. Check his last line – “None of that makes the slightest difference in the world if they’re still in separate and grotesquely unequal social and educational settings.”

    Academic achievement should be what schools are focused on, and the wide multitude of successful charters have proven that even without the HCZ’s wraparound support, high gains in achievement can be seen, but although that will presumably change the social situation for these students in the long run, it doesn’t always change the social situation for the students once they go home from school. Even if it’s not necessary or sufficient for high gains, why shouldn’t we try to fix that as well?

  5. My point is that achievement gaps are real and cannot be blamed solely on what Kozol calls “a grotesque gap in opportunity,” meaning “medical inequalities: unequal access to good pediatric care when children are babies, when they’re infants, when they’re toddlers.”

    The 200+ African-American kids at Ingraham have been in school for over a decade yet only 5 percent of them are proficient in math, yet within the SAME SCHOOL 65 percent of White students are proficient. Can this grotesque gap in achievement really be blamed on “medical inequalities”? Do the schools these kids attended for the past 10 years really bear no responsibility for this? Does Ingraham High School and district leaders bear no responsibility to intervene?

    Yes, this injustice is most definitely about both huge gaps in opportunity and huge gaps in achievement and growth. But what matters most is what we do about it now.

  6. Clearly, Kozol isn’t just talking about medical inequalities, so I’m not sure if you accidentally singled that out or not, as you cited it twice in place of Kozol’s “opportunity gap.”

    From there, we’ve got a few possibilities. Either the minority students at Ingraham are receiving the same educational opportunities as the white students or they are not. If they are, then that’s a control variable, in which case Kozol’s argument feels quite compelling. If they are not, then that’s obviously a huge school issue, but it still doesn’t refute Kozol’s argument.

    All of this said, dealing with the problem requires going all the way back to thinking about Dewey’s social theories. We either put everyone on the same playing field – in the case of Ingraham, this would mean not singling out students based on anything and not giving anyone special educational supports – or making sure that everyone achieves equal outcomes – which would mean giving the African-American students at Ingraham many more supports to raise their achievement and close the achievement gap at Ingraham, and in fact, it would mean giving any low-achieving student additional support regardless of race. An excellent school does not leave children behind, it meets them where they are and takes them to where they need to go.

    Again, citing Kozol’s last line, I sincerely doubt that he would say a single word against the fierce urgency of now, nor does anything in his argument suggest that the school bears any less responsibility just because there are outside issues that the lower-achieving students face. Citing other social ills and expressing a will to fix them does not preclude a focus on educational equity for all students.

  7. Has anyone here read either John’s McWhorter’s books on African-American academic achievement problems (Losing the Race; Winning the Race) or the books by the Thernstroms on these topics? They delve into the social and cultural differences between races (on a large scale) with regard to attitudes about educational achievement. It’s not JUST about economics. Low-income members of other minorities (Asians, Jews) in the same school with low-income African-American and Hispanic students, often do quite well.

  8. Hey, Parker –

    It is nice to see you engage in conversations about results for students and exploring the answers to them. I do think that districts have a responsibility to help find the answers to these questions, too.

    What if we changed our mindset and engaged in conversations about 21st century skills – like the building of aptitudes like collaboration and presentations of learning, in addition to performance on standardized tests? How do you measure these skills?

    Since we do now how to measure performance via standardized tests, do you know what the mobility rates for all of the kids are at Ingraham? What were the rates of the students testing at grade level? Special needs rates? What should our expectations be for standardized test scores if kids move from school to school and have special needs?

    What should our expectations be of schools like DSST and West Denver Prep for all students, not just the ones who fit into their model well? In other words, can we track students not just at the school, but as they move within a district? Who is responsible in this analysis – the school, the district or the state?

    Jen Kramer-Wine

  9. Mr. Baxter writes: “The 200+ African-American kids at Ingraham have been in school for over a decade yet only 5 percent of them are proficient in math, yet within the SAME SCHOOL 65 percent of White students are proficient.”

    Yes, the African-American students and the White students have both been in school for ten years, but not the same school. In fact, were it the same school it would prove Mr. Kozol’s point all the more. What do you think? That the classes are segregated? Do you think that the teachers are whispering the curriculum into the ears of the White students so the Blacks students can’t hear?

    If the students are sitting together in the same classroom and getting the same instruction yet there are disparate outcomes, it’s pretty clear that the cause of the difference is not in the school – where they are getting the same instruction – but outside the school where their circumstances (including nutrition, health care, stability, access to enrichment, etc.) are different.

    Parker Baxter makes Mr. Kozol’s point very neatly.

    Now, to make Parker Baxter’s point “Do the schools these kids attended for the past 10 years really bear no responsibility for this? Does Ingraham High School and district leaders bear no responsibility to intervene?”

    Yes, the schools do have an obligation to intervene. The intervention needs to include more than just extended class time. It needs to fill the opportunity gap with structured study time, with breakfast, lunch, and an after-school snack, with field trips – lots and lots of field trips, and with a focus on accelerating the education of students who have fallen behind even a little bit in grades K-12. Seattle Public Schools, however, has never taken any interest in early or effective interventions for struggling students. So by the time the students are in high school, the gap has grown to the point we see it at Ingraham.

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