by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
[T]he achievement gap is a poor tool for understanding student failure or promoting student achievement. It falls flat in three important ways.
First, our obsession with the achievement gap masks a deeper challenge—notably our collective failure to teach literacy and build verbal proficiency across all races and classes. Consider that in 2019, before Covid-19 lockdowns and learning declines, only one-third of all eighth-grade students scored “proficient” on the National Assessment of Progress in reading. And in no year since the “Nation’s Report Card” was first administered in 1992 has a majority of white students been reading at grade level. The sad irony is that closing the black-white achievement gap would guarantee only educational mediocrity for all students.
Second, our preoccupation with closing racial and economic achievement gaps ushered in a kind of blinkered, reductive thinking that crowds out educators’ ability to identify creative solutions across demographic categories. Educators bombarded by statistics on the racial achievement gap are, unsurprisingly, inclined to believe that underachievement is rooted in racism. A deeper look would shatter this notion that systematic racism is the sole or even primary cause of low proficiency rates among black and Hispanic Americans. …
… Many studies analyzing student characteristics show the importance of family structure over other factors, including race. But most educators and policymakers ignore these data, leaving them more likely to misdiagnose why kids are not succeeding and less likely to pursue creative solutions that would better equip the rising generation to succeed in school.
Third, many of the remedies that arise from our single-minded focus on racial achievement gaps yield counterproductive results. For example, many educators who are led to believe that racism is the primary cause of student underachievement are eager to participate in diversity and equity training rooted in critical race theory or so-called anti-racist ideology. But research suggests such training has a downside.