Closing the Opportunity Gap
I hate the term “achievement gap.” Words have power, and I think “achievement gap” fails to provide the context necessary for transformation for all our children. The educational disparities we see are the result of our inability to create the context within which children can realize their potential. The so-called “achievement gap” is not about the pervasive failure of young people. It is a result of institutional, systemic, and collective community failure; it’s about declining community engagement; it’s about our looking for new things and not looking to what is already working. The educational disparities facing so many of our young people today are the result of an opportunity gap.
Professor Theresa Perry of Simmons College tells the story of a rural grandmother who sums up the so-called “achievement gap” this way: “If the corn doesn’t grow, nobody asks what’s wrong with the corn.” If the corn does not grow, we wonder about the weather conditions. If the corn does not grow, we wonder about the soil. If the corn does not grow, we wonder if the pesticides we sprayed inhibited crops’ growth. If the corn does not grow, we look at the farmer. However, if we subscribe to the existence of an “achievement gap”, we are saying that our children do not achieve because there is something fundamentally wrong with them. The language we choose needs to reflect the heart of the disparity — a disparity that has everything to do with access, opportunity, and the lack of public and community will to transform outcomes for all our children.
The truth is that student achievement and the things that drive it are more complex than the business models of some social entrepreneurs would have us believe. Here is what the research says that we choose to ignore:
- Achievement gaps are widest in segregated school systems.
- Family and community stability — driven by the availability of adequate employment opportunities, housing, quality health care, municipal services, strength of local institutions — matters.
- Experienced, well-trained, committed school and classroom leaders who feel supported and valued matter.
- One size does not fit all. Teacher accountability, charter schools, and community-based college success programs, like H.E.A.F., are a proven strategy for ensuring students are adequately prepared for college graduation, not The Answer.
- Our individual and collective biases around race, class and culture matter. Pervasive cultural stereotypes that reinforce images of low achievement and low aspirations not only impact our children and their motivation, but these images also impact the people and institutions charged with their education.
None of this is new. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs says that before you can truly address higher-level education, you must address basic physical needs and the social and emotional need to feel competent and included. Sadly, we rarely organize our schools and institutions that way.
Let me talk about the Harlem Educational Activities Fund for a moment. 100 percent of our high school students graduate on time. 98 to 100 percent of those students — depending on the cohort — will matriculate at a four-year college or university in the fall immediately following high school graduation. 95 percent of those students will graduate with an undergraduate degree within six years. And, here’s the magic: while only 9 percent of the American population has a master’s degree or more, 35 percent of H.E.A.F. college graduates have gone on to obtain a graduate or professional degree. They are predominantly low-income students who attend non-charter public schools in neighborhoods across New York City.
The opportunity gaps experienced by many of our disenfranchised youth hinge on one basic question. What is our national will to overcome the educational disparities that we have systemically worked to recreate after nearly closing the so-called “achievement gap” in 1986? We know how to educate young people. We do it at H.E.A.F. — right in the center of Harlem — every day. We don’t need more studies. We don’t need more new curriculum guides. We don’t need a self-aggrandizing political agenda where some seek to be stars in the liberation stories of others. We need the will to take what we know and invest our energy, expertise, focus, and human and financial resources in what works.
The most important thing we do is frame the discourse on achievement for our students. H.E.A.F. says: This is your community, and this is the world, and there is value in both. You have a right to choose your own path — to reject the society’s fractured view of what it means to be young, black, Latino, gay, poor, etc. — and to create a reality for yourself that reflects your spirit, your values, and your interests. We tell them that education is a tool of personal transformation. It will deepen your understanding of yourself and the world around you. It will set you free. And, they achieve. #
Dr. Danielle Moss-Lee is the president and C.E.O. of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund.