In the 21st century, calls to âclose the achievement gapâ have been ubiquitous in education circles. Yet, as policymakers and educators pay more attention to the problem, a growing number of commentators have begun to fear that the dominance of this “empty” framing of conversations about race and education could be counterproductive. .
One concern is that this framing favors deficit-based mindsets by assuming that white student outcomes should be the standard black, Latino, and Native American students aspire to. Second, by focusing on student achievement, framing the âachievement gapâ can obscure the role that larger structural forces play in producing these disparities. Instead, some academics have argued that we should define the problem as an “education debt.”To highlight ways in which students of color have been systematically disadvantaged in education throughout the country’s history.
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In this special Opinion project, Education Week brought together researchers and educators to explore how even subtle language choices can reflect and inform the way we think about the potential of students.
This special project is supported by a grant from the Wallace Foundation. Education Week has retained exclusive editorial control over the content of this dossier; the opinions expressed are those of the authors.
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These arguments are starting to take effect. For example, Teach For America announced last year that it was removing the term âachievement gapâ to speak instead of closing âopportunity gapsâ. So far, however, there has been no experimental evidence to help us understand the effect of the terms we use when discussing race and upbringing. We therefore conducted an experimental survey of more than 1,500 teachers to find out more.
We hypothesized that the term âracial inequality in educational achievementâ would elicit more support for equity-oriented policies than the term âracial achievement gapâ. Although essentially synonymous, the “racial inequality” framing evokes connotations of social justice while the “achievement gap” framing may instead play into negative stereotypes about students of color.
In our national sample of pre-K-12 teachers, we randomly assigned respondents to receive one of two different versions of our survey items. One version used the term “racial achievement gap” while the other used “racial inequality in educational achievement.” The first item read: “As you know, there is [a racial achievement gap/racial inequality in educational outcomes] between black and white students in the United States Thinking of all the important issues facing the country today, how much of a priority do you think it is to [close the racial achievement gap/end racial inequality in educational outcomes] between black and white students?
The results supported our hypothesis: We found that teachers placed inequalities lower in priority when these inequalities were presented as an âachievement gapâ. Specifically, 78% of teachers who received the version of the question referring to ‘inequality’ responded that ending racial inequality in academic achievement was either a ‘high priority’ or ‘essential’ (for example). compared to a medium priority, a low priority or not a priority). However, only 70 percent of teachers who received the âgapâ version responded that closing the achievement gap was a high or essential priority.
We found that teachers gave inequalities less priority when these inequalities were presented as an âachievement gapâ.
Additionally, this overall difference was due to white teachers (who made up 70% of respondents): Among white teachers, 81% who received the ‘inequality’ version responded that ending racial inequality in academic performance was either a “high priority” or “essential” when only 68% of those who received the “pass gap” version responded this way.
As a study of teachers in particular, this work does not provide insight into how the general public may react to the term achievement gap or its larger discourse surrounding it. People outside of education may have different connotations for these terms and may be affected differently when they meet them in political debates or news reporting.
Nonetheless, this study provides empirical support for the concern that framing the âachievement gapâ can have unintended negative consequences. Our results suggest that the language we use to describe academic performance by race may affect the priority teachers place on eliminating inequalities. Teachers, education officials, researchers and journalists should therefore think about the messages and language they use when discussing issues of race and education.
Perhaps a particularly important area where we should think about the terms we use is politics. We know from research outside of education that language affects people’s political preferences. For example, Republicans are more likely to endorse a policy described as “carbon offsetting” compared to the same policy when referred to as “carbon tax.” In political debates and polls, the public may be more likely to approve of an equity-focused policy if its goal is described as “ending racial inequalities in educational achievement” rather than “closing the gender gap. racial success â. More experimental work is needed to better understand the nuances of how language around race and upbringing affects public opinion.
Ending educational inequalities will require clarifying them. However, it’s important that we understand how to frame these conversations in the most productive way possible. Beyond the use of specific terms, we need to better understand how the framing of educational disparities affects people’s cognition and how these framings can interact with people’s background knowledge and personal experience. Such insight will help guide solution-oriented conversations to advance equity and excellence in education.