Two ways of looking at the “achievement gap”

In this post from last October, I argued that blaming schools for the “achievement gap” between students of different races and ethnic groups is foolish and counterproductive. Unfortunately, it’s also a staple of left-wing discourse about education.

The latest example comes from Montgomery County, Maryland where I live. The County has rolled out school-by-school “report cards” on student achievement. They show what activists call “appalling gaps” in how Black and Latino students perform in comparison to their white counterparts.

Two activists, one an advocate for Blacks and the other for Latinos, wrote a joint letter to school officials stating:

Our students and families have a crushing sense of urgency to have corrective actions given the highest priority, as each school year that goes by only increases the achievement gap and the lost potential for a thriving adulthood.

But if minority students have this “crushing sense of urgency,” why don’t they work harder at their studies? Surely, that’s the most effective “corrective action” that can be taken.

Similarly, why don’t families with this crushing sense do a better job of preparing their kids for school and of keeping them focused and on track once they start class?

The school system has no obligation to make sure one set of students performs as well and learns as much as another. Its obligation is to provide every student with the opportunity to learn and perform.

This doesn’t always mean treating all students the same. For example, if students are handicapped due to a language barrier, schools should address that problem. If students are behind in reading, schools should provide remedial programs.

But if you need a remedial program, you are already suffering from an achievement gap. The remedial program, though it might well help you read better, may not help you close the gap because the best readers will keep improving, as they move from strength to strength.

The most interesting thing about the Washington Post’s article on this subject is its failure to identify any “corrective actions” that Montgomery County schools might take, but isn’t taking, that likely would close the achievement gap. Why, then, assume that it’s the school system’s fault that Black and Latino students as a group achieve less than White students? Making this assumption helps reinforce poor performing students’ status as victims, but by discounting individual responsibility for achievement, it may depress their performance.

Thus, the issue may come down to this: What’s more important to minority students and their parents, affirming victim status or putting in the work both at home and in the classroom that has always been associated with high achievement? There was a time not so long ago when this question would answer itself. But in today’s identity politics America, perhaps it doesn’t.

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