by Laurie Kimbrel, Ed.D.
For many years there has been a national dialogue regarding the gap in achievement between low-income, minority students and their middle to upper income, white peers. As we compare standardized test scores, grade point averages and graduation rates, we can easily see a persistent gap between these groups. In fact, in many school systems, we can predict the outcomes for a student based on their zip code or the size of their parents’ paycheck. Most educators find this gap unacceptable and many programs and ideas are introduced annually into schools in order to help reduce the gap. The research on the efficacy of these programs varies, but for the most part, despite the good intentions of educators and policy makers, the achievement gaps persist.
When we focus on the achievement gap, we consider the measurements of results. In other words, the focus in on an outcome or what a student is able to do after a semester or year of school. What if we were to change the conversation so that we focus on the experience of students rather than the measurements we use after the fact? Many educators have adjusted their language and their thinking on this issue and now focus on the opportunity gap rather than the achievement gap. The question that we should really be asking is about inputs, or the experience of the students. Do all students in the system have the same opportunity to experience success? When we consider the opportunity gap, we examine the differences between what courses and experiences are available to various groups of students.
When we take an honest look at schools, we often see very different experiences for low income and minority students. A few questions to consider:
- Do all students have access to at least grade level instruction or are some students placed into remedial tracks with very little chance for advancement?
- Are there research based, non-optional interventions available to all students who struggle academically and emotionally? Do these interventions allow students to stay in grade level courses? Do experts administer these interventions?
- Are minority and low-income students proportionally represented in honors and Advanced Placement courses? If not, are their barriers to admission that prohibit students with the desire to challenge themselves?
- Are minority and low-income students over represented in special education programs and courses? Statistically, these students are no more likely to be disabled than their peers.
- Are minority and low-income students proportionally represented in specialty and niche programs such as International Baccalaureate, magnet schools or charter schools? If not, what barriers to admission or participation exist?
If we believe that our schools should prepare all students for college and career, then it is imperative to eliminate the gaps in opportunity that our students often experience. All students should receive at least grade level instruction and those who need extra assistance to function at grade level should have access a robust system of intervention and support. We should not be able to look in a classroom door and know that it’s below grade level, tracked class because of the color of the students’ skin. If we are fulfilling the promise of American education, gifted, honors, and Advanced Placement classrooms should be visually indistinguishable from grade level courses. The barriers to participation in rigorous programs must be eliminated. All students deserve access to the very best that every teacher and school have to offer.