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The Deficit Lens of the ‘Achievement Gap’ Needs to Be Flipped. Here’s How

Like many well-meaning researchers, teachers, administrators, and philanthropists, I used to talk a lot about achievement gaps. I wanted to help close the persistent attainment disparities between white students and students of color and between rich and poor students. I wanted to improve the outcomes of those who have historically been left behind. As a researcher, I thought I could help do that by identifying the deficits in students’ skills and competencies that need to be improved.

However, three years of participating in the Building Equitable Learning Environments Network has convinced me that we need to turn this thinking on its head. In the BELE Network, I worked hand-in-hand with a coalition of educators, researchers, philanthropists, and nonprofit leaders to create more equitable opportunity in America’s schools-to adapt systems and enable all students to thrive.

This work reinforced my prior belief that quantifiable metrics can help us identify the deficits that need to be improved. More importantly, though, it also helped me realize that I had been looking for deficits in the wrong places. The attainment metrics I had been using registered the deficits in the students. But the deficits are not in the students. They’re in the systems that are supposed to serve them.

For too long, American schools have had a default orientation toward measuring students’ abilities and achievement, rather than focusing on the resources-such as engaging learning environments and high-quality, culturally responsive teaching practices-that empower students to learn new concepts and skills.

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