Who’s Dating the Achievement Gap? It’s not Single.

Ask anyone in education what has been the one consistent challenge in schools across America for the last 20 years and I am willing to bet their answer would be three words: The Achievement Gap. For years, much research has been written on how the performance of minority children and children of poverty differs from their White and/or more affluent counterparts.

There is no denying that in many of our public schools across America, there is a stark difference in the overall performance between these two groups of children. That is certainly not to say that there aren’t exceptions to this problem. I find myself continually disappointed that we haven’t been courageous enough to deal with the root issues that contribute to the achievement gap.

There is a popular narrative that one place educators need to start is by acknowledging their beliefs and biases. We cannot reduce this complex challenge to a solution to an acknowledgement of our individual biases. We have to do something about it. Educators need to take action. Challenge the status quo, put the issue of equity on the table, and advocate in ways we haven’t done before.

This means acting with courage when we see or when we hear something that counters that belief. While I am in agreement that an educator’s expectations most certainly impacts the performance of their students, I refuse to belief that the achievement gap is simply a problem related to chronic widespread low expectations. In fact, I think we all know that this challenge cannot be treated as if a hard nosed demand for improved performance will bring about the change we seek.

The achievement gap has multiple partners. It is not single in nature and can no longer be treated as such. If we are going to get to the core of working to overcome this, we are going to have to address all of its’ many partners. As a child, my mother would often tell us, in order to solve a problem, you must address the root of the problem. “If you don’t get to the root, the problem will just keep coming back,” she’d say. I’m of the belief that we’ve yet to address the root. We know the key factors that contribute to the gap, but we aren’t acting on what we know.

As educators, we often find ourselves on the audit end of the problem, dealing with the effects of a multitude of things that happen to or impact young children’s developing brains and bodies after they’ve already happened. Our reactive approaches aren’t enough. If we really want to tackle the achievement gap, we should address the many things that often come with it:

  • Lack of access to quality prenatal care
  • Lack of access to quality health (mental and physical) care
  • Lack of access to quality employment
  • Lack of access to quality economic development
  • Lack of access to quality housing
  • Increased exposure to trauma or adverse childhood experiences
To keep this relatively simple, let’s look at the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Remember the children who were and are still suffering from the effects of high levels of lead in the water they drank, bathed in, their parents cooked with, and used to shampoo their hair?
In an earlier blog, I wrote about the impact of lead on the bodies and brains of young children. Exposure to high levels of lead can have a variety of effects on people, none of which happen to be good. Researchers at Virginia Tech conducted a study on the water crisis in Flint. Dr. Marc Edwards is the primary researcher and author of the site that describes the timeline and inquiries that lead to this crisis being exposed. You can read more by clicking here.  Further, you can dive into reading about the dangers of lead poisoning by Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital by clicking here The article is titled, Neuropsychological Effects of Lead Poisoning on Child Development. According to this literature, children who have high levels of lead in their bodies are likely to have problems such as:
  • deleted language or motor milestones
  • poor speech articulation
  • poor language usage or understanding
  • difficulty maintaining attention
  • problems with working memory
  • difficulty with problem solving
  • difficulty with coordination (fine and gross)
  • difficulty with behavior

The article goes on to list a number of things that can be done to address this and identifies a few solutions as possible ways to counter lead poisoning. These include things like lead safe housing, education of public, medical, and educational communities, early identification, early behavioral and/or medical treatment, adequate nutrition, and more.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that miracle teachers are not listed as part of the solution. That’s because the medical profession believes in acknowledging the root(s) of the problem, in addition to the symptoms, in order to address an illness. Make no mistake; it’s not just about lead poisoning either.

Many marginalized communities of poverty have higher rates of chronic asthma, higher rates of poor housing, higher rates of illiteracy, higher rates of emergency room visits, and more. I’ve read article after article after article. We know what the problems are, but we continue to do an autopsy instead of provide preventive care and continue to place the primary burden to solve the achievement gap on the shoulders of educators alone. It’s not right. It’s not fair and it’s not realistic.

How much additional research do we need to know that living in a high stress environment, with an over exposure to trauma, and a lack of access to quality health care, housing, and employment in an overwhelmingly economically depressed community has a negative impact on student performance? It’s not rocket science, but if you need more information on this issue please read some of the articles I’ve been reading for a real picture of the point I am trying to get across in this post. You can check them out here and here. Educators, most certainly have a professional and moral obligation to provide students with the highest quality instruction possible. There’s no doubt about that. We also have a responsibility to deal with the root causes of the achievement gap to help them do so.

We must be courageous enough to talk about the many other gaps in healthcare, housing, employment, economic development, etc. that accompany and contribute to achievement. Moreover, we must be courageous enough to demand others do something about the other gaps that they can impact.  As educators, it is time we ask those in the private sector to join us in this effort. While we can do our best to provide students with a quality educational experience, we are not policy makers, we cannot impact the economic development of our communities, we cannot provide access to quality health care and housing, but there are those who can and should. If we are committed to closing the gap, then asking those who impact the very things that contribute to it, should not come as an unexpected request. In fact, there should be an overwhelming eagerness to address the roots of the issue so that we can work toward solving the problem. To solve this problem, it will require the best of all of us, not just educators. Collectively, we have a responsibility to our communities and to our fellow human beings.

After we are courageous enough to start talking about these root causes, let’s be courageous enough to do something about it.  For those of us who are educators, I challenge you to let others know who’s dating the achievement gap because it is not single. With the help of everyone, we might just be able to make it monogamous.

Y’all press on now because the children are depending on us-ALL of us.

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!


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