The Trouble with Gaps

There was a moment this summer, while I was teaching a room full of high-achieving, and in my mind, at-risk students, where I faltered. I don’t remember the lesson or what made me privately freak out in my mind, but I remember the feeling… the American dream is a lie, “at-risk” is a stupid term, students are students are students, and teaching students so they can live up to a white, wealthy ideal is pointless.

But I didn’t let the feeling take hold of me. I pushed it away. It got lost in the stress of lesson plans and grading papers.

Several weeks later I returned to Ohio University, where my main extracurricular commitment revolved around education reform, a nebulous term that means many things to many different people. And because I am someone who enjoys a good discussion, I made sure I was immersed in the literature of people who are critical of the reform movement.

It is within this literature, that I first read Dr. Camika Royal’s argument against the use of the term “achievement gap.” A term I had used countless times myself, achievement gap had become, for me and many of my peers, a shorthand way of articulating the problem we saw in education. Upon my first reading of Dr. Royal’s piece, I thought this was the problem with the term–that achievement gap did not accurately portray the complexity of the problem.

And organizations I am a part of changed; instead of using achievement gap, both Students for Education Reform and Teach for America have adopted “opportunity gap” as part of their lexicons. Dr. Royal suggested the term in her first piece about the achievement gap on Good.

Several days ago, however, Dr. Royal began suggesting that this simple substitution of the terms is insufficient.


At first, I was taken aback by this. It seemed like organizations were listening to Dr. Royal. Why was she still frustrated?

And then I thought about her piece, again. This time, though, I thought about my summer experience, specifically the feeling I had had one day in class and ignored, and then some things clicked.

Dr. Royal is not frustrated about the term with a linguistic concern. She is frustrated with the power struggle that gets buried in language.

I asked my friend the other day how I can avoid a white savior complex. And he told me I had already fallen prey to it just by believing there was a group of people, categorically different than me, who needed my help. By dividing the world into white and black, I had already named difference, and by naming difference, I had already committed oppression.

This, I think, is what we do when we talk about gaps. Because when we acknowledge a gap, we set up a situation where things are better. And it’s not necessarily racial. Like we assume that wealth is better than poverty, that a Princeton degree is better than a GED, or that scoring in the 99th percentile is better than scoring in the 61st.

But here’s the rub. Oppressors have always chosen the grading stick. Oppressors have always been the ones who get to decide what we test, how we test it, and what background knowledge we test. Oppressors have always been the ones who decide what is better. And that is the issue.

If we ignore this problem, we risk, at the very least, pretension–the kind that claims you are not allowed to talk about a problem because you aren’t well-informed enough.

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to talk abut the issues we need to talk about. But I know that lumping entire of populations of students into one “at-risk” category is trouble. And that’s exactly what gaps do.


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