O'Connell is really doing it, if for no other reason that he's using the phrase achievement gap every time he speaks, and this type of prioritizing, even if it elevates effects over causes, moves reform efforts forward. On Sunday, he was showing graphs of performance data broken-down by ethnicity – Latino, African-American, White. Although I found the exclusion of performance data from Asian students odd, this information should not have been terribly surprising to most of the gathered. What was surprising was the lack of comment regarding a slide that showed performance levels of low-income White students has equaled or exceeded the performance of non low-income Latino and African-American students. In California, poor Whites do better than middle- and upper-class Blacks and Latinos.
By way of explanation, O'Connell says, "The achievement gap cannot be understood strictly in terms of socioeconomic status."
I find it bizarre to raise such a potentially volatile issue and leave it so bereft of context or interpretation. Cuz interpretation is everything with this one. Without breaking much of a sweat, I can run off a pretty extensive list of different ways to view these data, many I vehemently disagree with and find repugnant. No doubt, you could too. Some are already starting. Folks from the 408's local paper are planning investigations of the achievement gap, driven in part by this observation of O'Connell's, seeking to shed light on the ways in which cultural groups differ in their approach and support of the educational process.
This is a massive issue. The achievement gap is data on prevasive and institutionalized inequity, an inequity that is driven, experienced, and understood by an ever-expanding array of factors. The whole question of how we see the achievement gap, how we view and interpret these data, whether SES or ethnicity/ culture is a more appropriate lens to drive our analysis, all of this can be endlessly mined for its rich haul of investigative reports, op/ed pieces, and policy initiatives. There is no end to the deforestation this debate could engender, and as someone who goes to work everyday with the foremost intention and ultimate goal of closing the gaps O'Connell highlighted, I gotta tell ya: I don't care.
I don't care. I don't know the answers to these big ticket debate items, don't have much in the way of supported theories, and I'm not trying real hard to figure any of it out. More to the point, I'm not sure my not-knowing detracts from the work I do. Because I do know that some districts, schools, and classrooms are capable of mediating the myriad ways economic, social, ethnic, and language diversity influence teaching and learning. And some are not.
And that's it, right there. Across all levels of the system, some folks know how to get the job done at high levels, and some do not. This is an educator achievement gap, acknowledged in the practice of awarding those people and places that can bring it, but almost never acknowledged in name, not enough, not yet. This is where we ought to turn our time and attention. Given equivalent external factors, why does performance differ across districts, across schools and classrooms? That's the only question that matters. That's the only debate we need, and the only investigation worth undertaking.
All this may very well be what O'Connell meant; I certainly hope so. When we come to understand, identify, and implement – on a large scale – those strategies, skills, process, structures, and dispositions that foster high achievement in the key student groups we're so rightly concerned with, we will see a reduction in gaps, and more importantly, a corresponding reduction in the generational factors that can, in a vacuum, pull away from success and make it more difficult to attain. This is what we need to be doing. Everything else is a form of buck-passing or camouflaging – an unfortunate misappropriation of time, energy, and money.