It’s Our Society That Has An Opportunity Gap

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and data. Mark Twain( He told statistics , not data, but its close enough .)

The Ohio Department of Education has given us an F in Gap Closing( which is pretty much what my spouse gave me after I attempted to insulate the house before a particularly cold and drafty winter ). The sweaty toilers of the ODE engine room shoveled our numbers into the great cruncher. The digits tumbled into the spinning teeth of its mighty algorithm. It chewed, it cogitated, it spat out a judgment. Shaker: F.

First of all, Id like to point out that 86 percent of Ohios 608 school districts flunked this category. If we teachers dedicated a test that 86 percent of our students failed, we would assume there was something wrong with the test. But this percentage is a political , not educational decision.

In any case, the data attains us look bad. Or does it? It all depends on how you chew it. For instance, our African-American and Economically Disadvantaged( ED) children, the ones on the lower tier of our gap, scored better than the white children in Cleveland and in several other Ohio districts. Wheres your gap now, ODE? Our ED children performed vastly better than the same demographic groupsregardless of racearound the nation and around the country. Might that be a sign of something were doing right?

The problem is that no matter how well the lower tier of our gap performs, its being compared to a group whose numbers are severely distorted by our very top-performing children. The district rightly boasts about our graduates who are Presidential Scholars, National Merit Semi-Finalists, Ivy Leaguers, etc. etc. But the exceptional number of these exceptional students is proof not that were great lecturers, but that we have a freakish concentration of freakishly smart children. According to Measuring What Matters, we are the 17 th most trained community in the nation. That puts us squarely in freak territory: the top tenth of the top one percent of the 40,000 American cities and townships. We have many children who come from families in which not only both parents have advanced degrees, but all four grandparents went to college. Most of these children are going to be good students. Many is likely to be superstars. And when you hurl high income into the mixture, the superstars are issued capes and wrist web-shooters and bullet-deflecting bracelets.

We do a tremendous disservice to our studentsin any disaggregated groupwhen we compare them to these outliers. If we want to construe any meaningful lessons from the data, we ought to toss out these off-the-chart scores before we do any calculations.

We often hear something like this: We can close the achievement gap, since we are Shaker. I would put it the other way around: We cant close the achievement gap, since we are Shakera community with extreme inequalities in income and family educational background. Certainly we should work on constricting the gap. Certainly we must bust our butt every day to narrow the gap. But if we think we can erase it, were chasing unicorns.

What the data shows us is that, in our little community, were doing a damn good task at battling an epic problem.

The gap was not caused by schools; schools cant make it go forth. For one thing, the children arrivewhether first grade, kindergarten or pre-schoolwith an achievement gap already securely in place, already gaping broad. We can create programs for the disadvantaged children, we can work relentlessly on pulling them upward, but the gap may not budge. This is because the advantages dont stop pouring in for the advantaged children: nightly volume reads, educational toy, museum memberships, instructors, psychologists, painting lessons, pottery class, iPads, cameras, chemistry defines, horses, hockey squads, telescopes, cello camps, complete defines of Harry Potter. The parents not only understand the homework, they have the time to help with itand also with the dioramas, book-binding, mousetrap-powered autoes, baking soda volcanoes. As they get older, the disadvantaged children get more and more the chance of Shaker. Im proud of all the programs that our district sponsors to assist these children. The energy and money we put into these problems are exemplary. But advantaged children also get wonderful the chance of school. And on the weekend they go to Shakespeare plays; when theres a day off they shadow their parents at the Cleveland Clinic; for spring breach they run scuba diving in Costa Rica; over the summer they tour the museums of Europe.

Our achievement gap not only doesnt close over the 12 years of schooling, it grows somewhat wider. And here we make another serious mistake when we interpret the data. We assume that, if we were a genuinely equitable district, the data would prove it by having a gap that lessened, or at the worst, held steady. But this assumes that learning is a straight-out, upward-slanting line, a steady accumulation of knowledge and abilities. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the brain educates itself: not by inputting information, but by loading software. Growth is exponential. The more you learn, the better you get at learning. You learn faster; you retain more; your brain attains new connects and quantum leaps. Our achievement gap widens only slightly over the school years in Shaker, and this is a genuine achievement.

It appears that our district has begun to supplant the word accomplishment gap with possibility gap. I havent heard the rationale for this decision, but it seems to me that we are reaching for whips with which to flagellate ourselves. Opportunity gap implies that the faulting lies squarely with us: for surely we control what opportunities we devote our students. But it is our society that has an opportunity gap. And this colossal injustice manifests itself in schools as an accomplishment gap.

What the data shows us is that, in our little community, were doing a damn good task at battling an epic problema problem as broad as the nation and as deep as the most conceal and was all right the system of the human intellect. A problem as old as the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Before that, the data is kinda murky.

I are of course not advocating complacency. Im not telling we should stop trying to close the gap. We should strive with every fiber of our teaching souls to reach and engage and inspire the children on the lower tier of our gap. The obstacles in front of them are a monster injustice.

But when we hold ourselves to the impossible benchmarks of the ODE, when we hold out illusions as our criteria, we not only defined ourselves up for failure and recriminations, but we do a real disservice to the children we want to help. For some of these children are truly brilliant, some of them are pushing themselves to the limit, day in and day out, some of them are strolling miracles. And are we telling them that no matter how hard they work , no matter how high they achieve, its not sufficient?

The failing nation report card has led to a lot of hand-wringing in different districts, and some urgent communication to parents. Butcan I tell you a secret? This is one hell of a good school system. We know it; most of the community knows it. Personally, Im proud to be a Shaker teacher. Im humbled by the work of my colleagues. The only message we need to send regarding the news from Columbus is to the ODE itself: take your report card and shove it where the data dont shine.

There. I feel better already. And now I need to get back to work.

Christopher Cotton is an English educator at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio .

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