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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 27 2012

Achievement Gap? How About Achievement Debt?

At a recent TFA professional Saturday, someone mentioned that they don’t like the term Achievement gap, using instead the term achievement deficit. I’ve never really thought of what’s implied by the term achievement gap, but hearing him say achievement deficit sparked a few thoughts, tied mainly to my understanding of our economic deficits.

Deficits come about when we spend more than we take in each year. Therefore, they are inherently short-term. We could pass a one year tax on the rich and that might abolish the deficit. Or we could give a short-term tax cut, and that would add to the deficit. But neither would do much to change the much larger problem–our debt: the combined deficits we’ve accumulated over the centuries by borrowing/spending more than we are taking in.

I would argue that thinking about the achievement gap as a deficit is a mistake for anyone dissatisfied with the status quo.  Almost everyone immersed in educational debates would admit that if we increased our spending on education by a lot, in the short-term, the gap would still persist. Tons and tons of studies (google Eric Hanushek if you want twenty examples) show that increasing spending rarely leads to academic growth.

But what if we thought of the achievement gap as a debt? Over centuries, we have accumulated great wealth and education, in a large part because we borrowed from the human capital of millions of African Americans. We did this forcibly through slavery, where African Americans were prohibited from attaining any kind of meaningful education so that we could maximize the return to their labor. We then did this through unequal funding and discrimination, up until very recently (and some would argue we have not yet stopped). But in the same way that an economic debt accumulates each year and compounds with interest, so does an achievement debt. Uneducated or less educated parents are much more limited in educating their children, moving to places with better schools, or instilling the benefit of working hard in school. Like our national debt, the problem of our achievement debt cannot be understood cross-sectionally, only longitudinally. Like our national debt, the achievement debt is structural: it cannot be fixed with marginal policies or changes in funding, but rather a complete rethinking of the role of government and the services it provides.

Obviously using the word “debt” brings back an unsuccessful reparations movement, but I think if we agree that our achievement gap resembles our debt more than our deficit, there are dramatic implications for how the government must structurally address our educational inequalities.

3 Responses

  1. meghank

    Hanushek is “one of the most outspoken senior academics in the market-forces camp.” New Yorker (February 1, 2010) He works for the conservative Hoover Institute.

    Sorry if that information is a bit off-topic, it’s just that I came across that tidbit and the fact that the media doesn’t properly identify its “education experts” as people aligned with the corporate reform /privatization movement in an excellent article by Susan Ohanian.

    http://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/criticaled/article/view/183270/183511

    I don’t mean that YOU are the media, but that you might have been unaware of Hanushek’s conservative affiliation because of the media’s habit of not properly identifying the “experts” they quote.

  2. yoteach

    The right wing latches onto him because his research supports their worldview. That doesn’t invalidate his research or make him not an expert. But fixing on hin also misses the point right? Whether you like it or not, most policymakers agree that on the margins, improving funding is not the best way to fix schools. Rather than just invalidate Hanushek because I want to disagree with what his research evidences, I’m looking to find reasons why his research may not necessarily paint the whole picture of the funding problem in K-12 education. Marginal increases in funding may be futile, but structural changes in how we fund schools and what we fund still holds promise.

  3. meghank

    “Most policymakers” are corporate hacks, responsible for the continuing destruction of public education in this country.

    Funding isn’t even the point, although the money saved by abolishing the state tests could go a long way toward making schools happier, more productive places.

    The point today is the excessive focus on tests, fully supported by “most policymakers.” As Susan Ohanian says in the article I linked to, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that
    there’s freethinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

    She was quoting Noam Chomsky. She was right to use this quote, because the media very rarely (or never) questions the idea of state tests. It’s simply assumed to be a necessary evil. But why is that?

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