I serve on a board of trustees of a charter school in Trenton, New Jersey. Like charter schools across the country, our school’s measure of student success — and the assessment of whether or not the school itself is a successful charter school — is the students’ performance on state tests. When we discuss the performance of our students at our monthly meetings, the discussion is always framed in terms of achievement. And how is that achievement measured? By the difference in scoring on a program called Success Maker, a software program that prepares students for their district and state assessments at year end. Each child’s learning is monitored and measured. And the students’ performance determines the school’s ability to maintain its charter.
This focus on narrowing the achievement gap for students is a product of No Child Left Behind 2001 legislation to address disparities between groups of students. The phrase “achievement gap” is most often used to describe the troubling differences between African-American and latino students and their white peers, or the difference between the performance of a student from a low income family and one from a family with more means. A disproportionate number of lower income students and students of color across the country are educated in the lowest performing schools in the country. This gap shows itself in standardized test scores, grades, college completion rates, drop out rates, among other measures of success.
But what if we rethink the issue of an achievement gap as not so much an identification of what a child needs to surpass in order to succeed? What if, instead, we think of those gaps as debts?
Education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings challenged colleagues to rethink “the notion of the achievement gap and to begin to think about the incredible debt that we as a nation have accumulated. So rather than focusing on telling people to catch up, we have to think about how we, all of us, will begin to pay down this mountain of debt that we have amassed at the expense of entire groups of people.”
As a democracy, education and an educated citizenry are core values. So for every child who is denied a quality education, a sound foundation in math, the sciences, literacy, the arts and music a debt is incurred.
This debt is especially large in inner cities and rural impoverished areas across this country. It is especially felt by the poor, by people of color. Its impact is multigenerational and cyclical.
This debt makes public school unaffordable for the populace it is supposed to serve.