Monday, November 12, 2012

What's wrong with focusing on the Achievement Gap?

As Camika Royal adjures in Please Stop Using the Phrase 'Achievement Gap', "Words count because they indicate place, position, and power."

I've never heard the phrase "Achievement Gap," perhaps because my daughter graduated in 1995 near the top of her Tennessee high school class, but I know exactly how important Camika's issue is to students and to the future of our nation. It's not "just semantics."

Studies have shown that when students fill in demographic data prior to testing, their scores are affected by the categorizations by which they label themselves. Race and gender carry heavy weight in the psyche.

English is a sexist language; perhaps all existing languages are. But even more subtly pervasive than the "universal He" of its linguistics are the social rules society embeds in all aspects of culture. Just as that Kings always outweigh Queens in cards is simply understood, Black does not merely label total lightwave  absorption but assumes a breadth of negative connotations in every comparative sphere. To persist in the stark Black and White divide of America does a social disservice to our purported melting pot heritage and the entire nation of its descendants.

As Camika states, "Language counts because it suggests, if not highlights, the thinking underneath the words used." It's not just the "achievement gap" phraseology that we should be questioning but the underlying assumptions pervading our entire social structure -- from history's biases to the marriage "partnership" to corporate "personhood" to the hierarchical inversion of democracy's powerbase we're all expected to struggle to claim our rightful place in what used to be termed the (white male) landed aristocracy.

Indeed, it's all about "place, position, and power." A different focus, a different priority, a different standard inevitably earns not kudos for creative initiative or alternative possibilities or innovation but correction, sanction, and remedial action. Because different is always judged inferior, the focus of assistance is never "How can we help this person/group/approach to maximize the focal potential?" but rather "What’s wrong with them?"

And in a nutshell, that is what's wrong with most social programs. They imply that a single standard is appropriate for everyone. They require a uniform approach to resolution. They judge, criticize, and penalize difference rather than evaluate, assist, and improve within the context of the specific person, approach, focus, priority, and unique potential.

For "Achievement Gap" corrective programs to be meaningful and productive, they need to stop  labeling underperforming subsets as deficient and instead see them as signals that the uniform standard doesn't apply. If we could evaluate every situation for this societal Achievement Gap, then resources could be effectively directed toward maximizing the existing potential of each person and group in a unique, meaningful, and collaborative way.
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