What would it take to close the achievement gap?

Interesting perspective by an insider…
Published: Friday, January 18, 2008 10:22 AM CST

Earlier this week, I was reading a report from the Panasonic Foundation, which began with the following statement:

�It is a disturbing truth that race and class are highly predictive of student achievement in our schools. It is almost as though the literal chains that restrained African slaves have been transformed into figurative chains that form an iron-clad connection between children�s social and economic circumstances and their prospects for success in school and life.�

The author continued: �The links can and will be broken. It�s a matter of will, moral courage, strategic acumen, applied knowledge, and persistent work at every level of the system . . . To blame inequality of educational outcomes on the race and class of children and their families is to ignore extensive and ever-growing data revealing that, on the whole, public education is hardwired� consciously or not�to perpetuate the inequalities that children are born into.�


I don�t know if I�ve ever heard it so clearly stated: Rather than being the great �equalizer� that many of us imagine education to be, schools actually perpetuate the unequal circumstances into which children are born. Or, if we turn it around and say it in a positive way, public schools could be the vehicle by which we break the cycle of poverty and hopelessness into which so many children, particularly children of color, are born.

If this is true (and I believe it is,) then we must ask ourselves: �What would we need to change, in order to create schools where you couldn�t predict a child�s academic achievement by the color of their skin, the family�s income, the language the family speaks in the home, or how much education the parent had?� In other words: �What would it take to close the achievement gap?�

Well, if I knew all the answers, I would write a book. But there are some things I do know:

To close the achievement gap, we would have to decide that we had both the power and the responsibility to close the gap. Until we are willing to confront the idea that �public schools are hardwired to perpetuate inequality,� nothing will change. This is difficult to comprehend, especially for educators. None of us would be in this job if we didn�t believe we could make a difference, particularly for the children who need us most. None of us wants to believe that our actions, no matter how well intentioned, might actually perpetuate, rather than eliminate inequality.

We would have to find a way to talk together without blame, but with each of us willing to shoulder our share of the responsibility to change how we do business. To close the achievement gap, it will take the entire community working shoulder to shoulder, over a long period of time. Our hands will be full with the work we have to do, and no one will have either the time, the energy, or even a free hand with which to point fingers.

We would have to figure out how to talk in this community about race. As a society, we have fallen into what is essentially a collective silence about the issue of race, and its ongoing impact upon our communities. More ominously, we have left it to people of color to raise the issue, and frequently expressed annoyance when they do. The impact of race upon achievement is something we all would need to be willing to explore. My colleague Addye Hawkins is leading a group of district staff in �courageous conversations� about race. These conversations need to be continued, and expanded.

Finally, we would have to believe that there is strength in diversity, and that equality of opportunity is something that benefits the entire community. We would have to believe that more opportunities will come to a community where all students are achieving at high levels, and that, rather than fighting over a piece of the pie, we could actually expand the size of the pie.

I have heard it said that equality of educational opportunity is the civil rights struggle of the 21st Century. During a week when we pause to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I can think of no better tribute, than to work to make sure that our education system serves all children well, regardless of race, gender, language of origin or family income.

Is anyone else willing to dream with me?

Dr. Jill Shackelford is the superintendent of the Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools District.