Camika Royal, a historian of education and Teach for America alum, write a provocative post in which she called on people to stop using the term “achievement gap.” In her original post, she said the term is offensive and demeaning and explained why. The post generated many responses. I invited Dr. Royal to respond to her critics, and she does so here:
Some have tweeted me and/or commented on my original post about my objection to the term “achievement gap.” The post originally appeared on good.is and was reposted on the Philadelphia Public School Notebook’s blog. Some readers thought that my issue with the so-called achievement gap is just about words. It is not. My concern is neither. I am not the language police or the thought police. People may say what they want and think how they please.
However, there is a consequence for every choice we make. If we are serious about giving under-resourced and historically marginalized students the education they deserve, the narrative of education reform must shift, and our dialogue must honor all voices and perspectives, not just the loudest voices or the ones with the most money behind them.
Not only is the phrase “achievement gap” offensive (which is the least of my concerns), it is also inaccurate because of its inherent Anglo-normativity. Like so many other things in American life and culture, it suggests that whatever White people do is right and whatever everyone else does is wrong, incomplete, abnormal, and/or “the other.”
This is why when people suggest the difference in test scores between Whites and Asians is an “achievement gap” that supposedly disparages Whites, thus disproving the argument of Anglo-normativity, it does not. Even within the comparison of White and Asian students’ test scores, Whites’ test scores are seen as normal and Asians’ high test scores are seen as exotic and exceptional, hence the model minority myth. Both the so-called achievement gap and the model minority myth are racist constructs.
I realize that the label “racist” is strong and hard for some to digest. It isn’t my intention to offend by sharing this truth. Sometimes, the truth hurts. And our modern iteration of racism is so covert, insidious, and subtle that often people who benefit from it are usually completely unaware of it.
As for my blanket use of “White folks” in my original post, I apologize to those I offended by suggesting that there are no intra-racial differences among White people. There is a difference between Whites who are anti-racist advocates, White allies, those who advocate multicultural efforts, those who “don’t see color,” etc. If you believe the lie that we are post-racial in this country, then everything I am writing will seem as foreign as Klingonese.
I don’t think that education reformers use the term “achievement gap” cynically. I think they really believe they are working in the best interests of children. And to be clear, the so-called “achievement gap” and the work that goes into it are not only racist but also elitist.
What extends from the notion of the “achievement gap” is a messiah complex that fuels people rallied around “saving” children from themselves, their families, and their communities. Education reformers’ messiah complex manifests in the belief that the end (a “shot” in life via high test scores) justifies the means (mechanized and routinized instruction, ignoring or dismissing community input and cultural contexts, steam-rolling the concerns of veteran educators, etc.).
This messiah complex compels top-down reforms and resists partnerships with parents and listening to communities because these reformers truly believe they know best. Education reform fueled by martyrdom and the messiah complex is missing the mark. One of my mentors, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, said recently, “Catching up is made nearly impossible by our structural inequalities.” In agreement with her and with you, Dr. Ravitch, I believe that until education reform corrects structural inequalities teeming in under-resourced, historically marginalized communities, education reform will continue to fall short of its goal.
As for Teach For America’s quest to close the so-called “achievement gap,” I received a message on Friday that the organization discussed my article on its monthly national call with its president. According to the message, TFA’s president agreed with my article and said the organization should no longer use the phrase “achievement gap.” This is a small yet significant victory.
Changing one’s language is just the beginning of the shift. Changing organizational thinking must then be tackled; then the actions can be changed. I am stunned but glad that TFA is examining itself for the ways it may be blocking its own mission. I was also impressed that TFA was willing to engage in a conversation with its employees and Twitter followers about my article. It tweeted my article along with the question, “What does everyone think?” One of my fellow TFA alums responded by tweeting, “I think she was a selection mistake.” It’s cool, though. I know a hit dog will holler.